It’s quite telling what our national dish says about us. It’s not peasant cooking like the best Italian food, or courtly like French haut cuisine, it’s a staple of the urban working class, a remnant of industrialisation.
We’ve forgotten what happened to the landless two, two and a half centuries ago, separated from the land by the enclosures, the legalised theft of the common land by the rich and those with friends in parliament.
“They drove them from the skirts of commons, downs and forests,” wrote William Cobbett at the tail end of the great age of enclosure. “They took away their cows, pigs, geese, fowls, bees and gardens. They crowded them into miserable outskirts of towns and villages, for their children to become ricketty and diseased, confined amongst filth and vermin. They took from them their best inheritance: sweet air, health and the little liberty they had left.”
It’s generally claimed that the enclosures boosted agricultural production but the figures are only ever for produce that made it to market. The common land had a purpose – it fed those who grazed and farmed it. It was a vital subsidy to the subsistence of the rural poor. And that’s why urbanisation and industrialisation brought with it a terrible fall in life expectancy. People who’d had eggs, meat and vegetables now were put to work in factories and fed tea and bread with a skim of jam.
Fish and chips made their debut together in London in the 1860s courtesy Joseph Malin. The cooking process was in large measure about convenience; the fish steams inside the batter – it’s a quick way to cook it without ruining it. There are some suggestions that the batter may have originally been tossed away, though as a valuable source of fat and carbohydrates I suspect the less well off the customer the more likely the batter would have been eaten with everything else. It’s remained something of a bellweather for how well people are eating ever since.
And, as with any national dish, passions run high about what makes a particular purveyor stand out.
For all it’s been suggested that fish and chips as been usurped by pizza or burgers or the chicken tikka masala as our national dish no other single item on our menus is so closely compared. It’s a little like anything simple and well known; you can judge the quality of a pub or restaurant or takeaway by its fish and chips just as you can judge a guitarist by how they play the blues.
I have a personal favourite; Maggie’s in Hastings and I’ve written about it. However when I saw the results of the latest national fish and chip shop contest and realised that one of the top three is not half an hour’s drive away I couldn’t resist not least because this year’s winner is in Whitby and the second placed restaurant is on Shetland.
Luca and I didn’t really bother to look across the menu. It’s quite varied but it’s won an award for fish and chips and that’s what we’d gone to check out. Luca had the ‘light option’ – a half portion of chips and a small cod fillet, while I went for the haddock.
I really couldn’t fault it. The chips were perfectly fluffy on the inside and crisp on the outside without being oily. The fish seemed as fresh as any I’ve ever had and the batter wasn’t so heavy that it dominated.
I think I could say with some confidence that I’ve never had better. At the same time I’m sure that the fish and chips I get at Maggie’s are just as good, and at £6.95 are a good deal cheaper than Papa’s Barn’s at £13.50. And Maggie’s has atmosphere; it’s on the beach in an old fishermen’s shed with Britain’s last beach landed trawler fleet a literal pebble’s throw away on the shingle. Maggie redecorated a bit but she’s still managed to keep a bit of that faded seaside melancholy about the place, and people there drink mugs of tea and not glasses of wine. Papa’s Barn is a bit clinical, a bit soulless – the staff are welcoming and professional, but at Maggie’s they’re properly matey, in a nice rather than a forced sort of way.
I know one can bang on endlessly about authenticity but the dining experience is rarely just about the food.
Life seems to be the process of compiling memories, treasures of experience, that one can draw on so long as they can be kept alive. It’s why going out for a great meal, somewhere special and in great company, has a value far beyond the experience ‘in the moment’. The food may often memorable of itself, but the memories linger as a totality, a feeling, a warm embrace with the past, a wonderful mix of sensations physical and emotional and not simply of a taste in the mouth. It’s why the setting and the circumstances are as important as the food. The place you’re eating in can’t do much about the company you keep but it does have a role in creating a welcome and ambience.
Maggie’s has its own peculiar romance. OK, it’s more Brief Encounter than À Bout de Souffle, but it does. Papa’s Barn does not. You’ll eat fish and chips done as well as it’s possible to do, but I came away with a full stomach rather than beautiful memories.
They say, it’s probably tosh, that we chink glasses to engage the fifth sense as well, as taste, touch, sight and smell are already at play. By the same token when we eat out it’s about the food but it’s about so much more. Maggie’s keeps my trophy whatever the judges of the National Fish and Chip Awards may think.