Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Fish & Chip Shop.

Today, December 20th …

A most unpretentious fish and chip shop opened near Bradford, in Yorkshire, England on this day in 1928. The proprietor was Harry Ramsden, and somehow his little shop became the most famous fish and chip shop in the world.

It wasn’t the first fish and chip shop in England, although a believable rumour says that the phenomenon did start in the North of the country. At the risk of starting the Wars of the Roses all over again, this honour may in fact go to Lancashire. The true history of the classic combination will, like that of the hamburger in the USA, almost certainly never be proven to the satisfaction of every stakeholder, but we must not let this put us off considering the factoids as they currently appear.

Fried fish (no chips) was being sold as a street food in the 1840’s, and there were several ‘Fried Fish Shops’ in London in the early 1850’s. As for the chips, the claim by the town of Mossley in Lancashire is that sometime in the 1860’s the owner of a shop selling pigs’ trotters and pea soup noticed a vendor at a nearby market selling “chipped potatoes in the French style”, and subsequently added them to his repertoire, thus creating the first Chip Shop.

The true inspiration of course lies in the combination of these two fairly pedestrian victuals. The town of Oldham, also in Lancashire, claims that one of their own, a tripe-dresser (a singularly uninspiring-sounding profession) named Dyson was the genius to whom an entire class - Nay! an entire Nation - has reason to owe their undying gratitude.

‘Fish and Chips’ is now a classless classic, but it certainly began life as a cheap working class meal. How did something clearly associated with France and therefore according to definition in England, with ‘fancy food’, come to be a low-class meal? My own theory is that it is all the responsibility of that champion of the English downtrodden, Charles Dickens. The OED gives the first reference to “chips of potatoes” as ocurring in his novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Perhaps his widely-read and much-loved books had something to do with it? I welcome comment.

Here are a couple of Victorian recipes for fried fish, from Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1870’s)

Fish, Fried.
Fish to be nicely fried should be wiped very dry, and floured before being put into the pan of boiling fat. Next to oil clarified dripping is the best. Shake the pan gently till hot through. If you want the fish to look very nice, dip it into egg, and sprinkle with breadcrumbs before frying. Drain before the fire, and dish on a hot napkin. The time required for this mode of cooking will vary according to the size, quality, and thickness of the fish.

Fish, Fried (Jewish Fashion).
The Jews, like our continental neighbours, use oil for frying. Soyer gives the following excellent recipe for cooking fish: - Lay one or more pounds of halibut in a dish, with salt over the top, and water not to cover the fish. Let it stay one hour for the salt to penetrate. Drain and dry it; then cut out the bone and take off the fins. Divide the pieces into slices half an inch thick. Put a quarter of a pound of oil, butter, lard, or dripping into a frying pan. Dip the fish into a batter, and fry till the pieces are of a nice colour, and all sides alike. When quite done, take them out with a slice, drain, and serve with any sauce liked. All fish, especially those containing oil, are improved by this method – the oil is absorbed by the batter.

[Unfortunate inclusion, that lard, in a Jewish recipe. I blame the editors.]

Tomorrow’s Story …

Pig, with Onions.

A Previous Story for this Day …

Preserved potatoes aboard ship featured on December 20th 2005.

Quotation for the Day …

And then I saw the menu, stained with tea and beautifully written by a foreign hand, and on top it said - God I hated that old man - it said 'Chips with everything'. Chips with every damn thing. You breed babies and you eat chips with everything. Arnold Wesker ; Chips with Everything.


Anonymous said...

Fish and chips is not known in Holland; here, the snack shops serve dubious deep-fried meat-like goods (suspicious sausages & the like) along with thick chips in the Belgian manner, usually with mayonnaise.
Now a question - where/when does the British tradition of sprinkling the chips with malt vinegar originate?

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Nene
In the North of England malt vinegar is traditionally sprinkled on pease pudding and pease soup - so perhaps it derived from there, especially since one of the early chip shop owners sold pigs trotters and peas pudding.

Anonymous said...

That's a distinct possibility, and an elegant solution. Thanks!

Sixty Bricks said...

What a wonderful blog you have.

Anonymous said...

Talk about serendipity... today I got a book - The Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London by Gilda O'Neill (fascinating, btw) - and on page 23 is the following (speaking of the 19th century East End of London): "And there were the fried-fish sellers who offered cold fish from trays hanging around their necks that were so popular with the Jewish community; it is from here that the traditional fish and chips shop evolved." Alas, she does not name her source.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Nene - I think there is something in Mayhew's book on the London Poor about fried fish street vendors in Victoran London?? One of us should check that - although I'd say that suggesting it was the start of the fish and chip trade is just one person's opinion, not a historic fact.

Anonymous said...

I've sent you the relevant Mayhew passage by email, which I believe is likely O'Neill's source for at least part of her assertion.