It was with some dismay that I learnt yesterday of the apparently worsening plight of that most quintessentially English of repasts, fish and chips. I had little idea that this venerable dining staple of the sea needed a salt-and-vinegar shot in the arm. But not only have health concerns eroded the dish’s primacy on UK plates, but so too have continued gains made by new arrivals on the fast-food scene.
Down two thirds in popularity since its early 20th-century heyday (according to the National Federation of Fish Friers), a humble portion of fish and chips is no longer en vogue. Instead, a thick fillet of sweet fish can these days expect to be “pan-fried”, seared and served on a “bed” of something or flaked and “presented” with a “soupçon” of something else. (I always wonder in what else one would fry a piece of fish if not a pan?) In any case, it is my view that no cod could hope for a better fate than being encased in thick, crunchy beer batter and served. It should arrive wrapped in a couple of sheets of newspaper along with irregularly shaped but perfectly crisp-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside chips. Throw in a little pot of mushy peas on the side and I’m one artery-clogging step from heaven.
Apparently much of the decline in sales stems from the limitations of the fish-and-chip shop – the chippy – itself. But that pungent air, the oil-drenched kitchen aromas – perhaps an acquired taste – are part of the charm, surely? One whiff of the sweet fishy deliciousness emanating from Marylebone Lane in London will have me dashing in to the Golden Hind for a large cod and chips. I have swerved dangerously to a halt on Lisson Grove to seek in-car takeaway sustenance from Sea Shell; I’ve abandoned dog-walking duties to sate myself with a huge curly cod in the The Bull & Last. And I have rather selfishly dragged unsuspecting guests on a Himalayan-style ascent up Muswell Hill to tackle the house special at Toff’s. The chippy is an institution and, in my view, is best enjoyed in-house.
Home delivery may offer a greasy path to survival but deep-fried fish and ready-to-munch chips (and it is chips, you know – never, ever “fries”) do not travel well. I rather like that quality. You can reheat a curry. Pizza often tastes even better the next day. But like a sensitive crop or a delicate grape, fish and chips needs its perfect environment – so why not a beautifully tiled chippy, replete with specials blackboard, embossed mirrors and buttery leather booths? A venue, if you like, with real sole.
I’m a strong believer in a new motto: “In cod we trust”. I urge you all to follow suit and stop by your local chippy on the way home. It may take some finding and you may even have to travel a little further afield but believe me – it will be well worth the effort.
And by the way, if you have any better fish puns do let minnow.
Tom Edwards is news editor for Monocle 24.