When it comes to national icons, the rest of the world thinks of Britain in terms of the changing of the guard, Shakespeare’s birthplace, Princess Di and good old fish and chips. And, now, the latter is taking to the skies. You could say they’re frying high, except it would be a terrible joke.
National airline British Airways has just introduced a “Flying Fish and Chip Supper” on board various short-haul flights from Heathrow Airport to destinations such as Athens, Greece, or St. Petersburg, Russia.
BA has linked up with the Quayside fish and chip shop (chippy as it is known in the vernacular) in Whitby, Yorkshire, which was recently awarded the prestigious title of “Best in Britain” in the 2014 National Fish & Chip Awards.
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Three excellent fish and chip shops
Despite the sad truth that the standard of fish and chips has long been in decline throughout the UK, honored more in Pavlovian anticipation than the flabby and greasy actuality of stale oil, cheap vinegar and frozen potatoes, there are still some excellent fish and chip shops to be found around the country.
- The Fish House in Fleetwood, Lancashire. The Richardsons are a family of former fish merchants with Marine Stewardship Council certification and superb fresh fish and chips.
- Kingfisher in Plymouth, Devon. This restaurant is also a candidate for everyone’s ideal chippy with sustainable fish and fresh Maris Piper chips — fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside.
- Frankie’s in Shetland Isles. This is Britain’s most northerly fish and chip cafe and takeaway where you can probably get the best haddock ever known to Scotsman. Chip shop dreams are made of this — and who am I to disagree?
Stuart Fusco, chef-director of Quayside, has been working with BA to give his expert opinion on its sustainable cod fillet and chunky chips. Fusco says in a business travel news release that “cooking up a good batter on board presents some unique challenges,” which may be something of an understatement, given that our ability to taste saltiness and sweetness is reduced by about 30 percent at high altitude.
BA’s menu development manager Sinead Ferguson explains they have to pre-fry both the fish fillets and the chips, “but the length of time we do this for is fundamental to giving the chips and batter that desired crunch.”
History of fish and chips
The technique of shallow-frying fish in oil, originally to be served cold, is thought to have been introduced by Sephardic Jews in 19th century London. At the time fresh fish was widely available from the North Sea, and traders realized that frying the fish helped prolong shelf-life as well as mask any less-than-fresh aromas.
Fried potato stalls were also popular in working-class areas, boosted by the advent of cheap cooking oils, cast iron industrial ranges and patented inventions such as automatic potato peelers.
The great moment when fish met chip, however, plunges us into hot controversy. Some say the East End, others claim Dundee, Bradford, Oldham or Mossley near Manchester as the birthplace of the nation’s chippy. Certainly the borderland between Lancashire and Yorkshire was fertile territory for this new street food: a strong tradition of potato eating; access from the ports via the new railway network; working families who needed cheap, quick and nutritious food.
Although things have never been quite the same since the hygiene police banned the use of traditional newsprint for wrapping paper (which effectively blotted up the fat without steaming the contents), a proper portion of fresh, well-made fish and chips can hit the spot like no other.
However, if there is one thing better, it is a chip butty. To construct, lavishly spread sliced white bread or barm cakes with butter. Fill to capacity with salted, well-vinegared chips, hot enough to melt the butter. Simply divine.
Four Fish Batters
Yield: Each of the following four recipes produces enough batter to deep-fry 4 pieces of fish
1. Dissolve one package of active dried yeast in ¼ cup of tepid water. Sieve 2 cups all-purpose flour and a teaspoon of salt into a bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in 1 cup of tepid water plus the yeast and water mixture; whisk well. Leave covered for a few hours before using.
2. Sift 1 cup self-rising flour with a pinch of salt, then add 1 egg, 1 tablespoon oil or melted butter and ⅔ cup milk to make a smooth batter.
3. Place ¾ cup all-purpose flour in a bowl, make a well. Add an egg yolk, 3 tablespoons beer and a little salt. Mix together. Combine 3 tablespoons milk and 2 tablespoons cold water. Gradually add to the first mixture. Rest for at least 30 minutes, then fold in 2 stiffly beaten egg whites.
4. To make a tempura batter, loosely whisk 1 cup of very cold water and a refrigerator-temperature egg with 1 cup all-purpose flour, ¼ cup cornstarch and a pinch of salt.
A Word About Mushy Peas
Mushy — what a word! You couldn’t invent another that so aptly describes the texture and consistency of this northern delicacy that adds a touch of subtle color to the burnished palette of the fish and chip plate.
Old Cumbrian directions for Pease Pudding, aka Mushy Peas:
1. Soak two cups of dried marrowfat or split green peas overnight with a pinch of baking soda.
2. Drain and place into a pan with a sliced onion. Cover with water and simmer for 2 hours until soft and the water absorbed.
3. Purée until thick but still somewhat lumpy, then add 2 tablespoons butter, a beaten egg, salt, pepper and a little nutmeg. Reheat gently, stirring constantly.
Alternatively, buy a tin of Lockwood’s Mushy Peas (and tart up with a bit of fresh mint).
Main photo: Fish and chips with mushy peas to go from Armstrong’s Fish and Chips in Prestwich, Manchester. Credit: Clarissa Hyman