Friday night’s chippy tea.
I do not follow any religious creed and as a result I’m perhaps ignorant of why fish is traditionally eaten on fridays, but in our house, friday night’s tea is simply fish served with a portion of oven-baked chips. For colour and a touch of authenticity, perhaps, I will introduce a mound of mushy peas, but on the whole it will be a fish fillet (either sprinkled with breadcrumbs and baked or dusted with seasoned flour and lightly fried) and its accompaniment of chunky-cut chips doused in Sarsons malt vinegar. On thinking about it carefully, the tradition is probably a throwback to the early 70s, when, as a small child, I would wait patiently for my Dad to smooth back his hair, don shirt and tie and inhale the giddy air of his friday night out with the blokes. It was only when Dad was away and my younger brother was snoring sweetly upstairs that Mum, my elder brother, Ed, and me could guzzle ourselves stupid on fish and chips bought from the local chippy.
There were two fish and chip shops in our locality, one higher up the lane whose interior boasted a large collection of sea memorabilia: captains’ hats hung drunkenly from hooks on the wall; hand blown glass floats glinting in red and green and swaddled in knotted jute netting swung from ceiling and doorway; fading prints of bushy-bearded seamen smoking pipes placed next to the shop’s price-list and no end of shells and starfish. Although this shop promised you a genuine taste of the sea’s bounty it could not, for me, compare with Yates’s chippy situated lower down the lane. There was no room for frippery in this shop on account of it being crammed full of hungry customers waiting for their turn in the queue. The proprietor, Mr Yates (or Ken), obviously took fish-frying seriously as he always wore a gleaming white overall and underneath that, out of respect for his profession, a neat black tie. Even more memorable was his mellifluous whistle which began as he emerged from the back of the shop. Commencing with simple pitch-steps, his tune would gather tempo, rising and merging with the pop and crackle of fat in a dizzying liquid vibrato. Replete with avuncular kindness, he always had time in his busy schedule to reach over the counter and chuck you under the chin, or hand you a scoop of batter scraps, free of charge, to crunch on while you waited.
Once served, embracing our greasy parcels and bottles of pop, my brother and I would dart our way back through the queue and out into the early evening air. On more than one occasion we would bump into old Mrs Eastman who lived on the other side of the playing field in the row of houses opposite ours. To us children she was a gnarly bad-tempered woman, whose meanness seemed to overflow when sheltered behind her garden gate, for in a proprietorial rage she would spit out, “get on yer own side Gradwell,” if me or any of my siblings dared to tread over the field and play on what she deemed her side of the avenue. However, there were occasions when Mrs E let go her fierce facade and her walk to Yates’s chippy, neutral territory perhaps, was usually one of them. Come to think of it, I can’t remember her walking anywhere else, for always –enamel pudding basin* in hand – slippered feet shuffling forward, she would nod acknowledgement and ask any passer-by the same question: “Ar’t goin t’chippy, cock?” No matter that you were swathed in furs and fine jewels as if for a night at the opera (a rare occurrence round our way), or that you were disguised in wig and cape for Halloween, it was always the same refrain: “Ar’t goin t’chippy, cock?”
With anticipated joy, once safely home, we would unwrap our fishy parcels and breathe in the scent of our steaming fish supper. The acidic stench of vinegar, hitting the back of my nose, made me recoil only slightly before I tugged free a golden chip and yes, you’re reading this correctly, dunked it into my glass of fizzing pop before shoving it, drips and all into my hungry mouth. The combination, I remember, was divine. Throughout the week, we didn’t have access to fizzy drinks and made do with water, euphemistically named ‘corporation pop’. It was only on friday evenings that we could indulge ourselves on sticky effervescent limeade (my favourite), or the dark and mysterious dandelion and burdock. And only the first two or three chips were used as dunkers, the rest, along with the battered fish, were appreciated for their savoury goodness. But why would I soak a perfectly cooked chip in a sugary drink? Perhaps it was my precocious taste buds hurrying towards a later desire for the ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’, although I do feel my need for chips soaked in pop was an emotional one and created by a need to exploit the ecstasy of the moment - when pop is newly poured and chips are at their most enticing - to its fullest extent. A diminished experience, perhaps, if enjoyed separately.
Fully satiated we were able to stretch out like pampered cats while Mum switched on the TV. Dad did not approve of children watching television and so the entertainment appeared as an illicit novelty, another indulgence in which we could freely delight in. A fitting follow-up to our banquet had to be It’s a Knockout hosted by the delightful Stuart Hall. The programme featured grown men, hampered by their giant rabbit costumes, slipping around on foamed platforms in an unbalanced frenzy. The teetering and tottering would likely cause anyone to snigger but it was Stuart Hall and his infectious, uncontrollable laughter that filled our evening with so much furious hilarity. My Dad barely smiled, let alone laughed and to witness such merriment from a grown man was as refreshing as it was cathartic. Much later, our bellies plump with mirth and supper, we would climb the stairs and join our little brother in a contented sleep.
*Chip shops would allow you to take your own container, usually for steak puddings and gravy.
A fish and Chip Supper for Two
A fish and Chip Supper for Two
There is another delicious version of fish and chips in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s excellent book River Cottage Everyday. It was from his recipe that I got the idea of cooking the fish in the same tin as the potatoes. A simple but helpful way of saving you time in the kitchen.
2 fairly large floury potatoes (Maris Piper or King Edward), peeled and cut into fat fingers
4 tablespoons of oil (I use basic olive oil)
2 fillets of a fish of your choice (haddock, Pollack, bream or any of the oilier fish such as trout)
2 slices of white bread (crusts removed)
Handful of flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons of tartare sauce
Grated zest of a lemon
Ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200°.
Place the chipped potatoes in a pan of salted water and bring to the boil allowing them to simmer for 5 minutes. Timing is quite crucial as you don’t want the potatoes to become too soft and break up in the hot oil; less of a chip and more of a roasted rösti!
Place the oil in a large, sturdy roasting tin (large enough to hold the chips and accompanying fish) and put in the oven until hazy with heat.
Drain the potatoes, return to the pan and give them a stern shake so they become furred and ruffled at the edges.
Topple the potatoes into the roasting tin, jiggle them about until they are all covered in the hot oil and place them back in the oven for an initial 30 minutes. Check after 15 minutes and maybe give them another shake and baste.
Meanwhile, whizz up the bread and parsley in a food processor until you have a couple of handfuls of fine breadcrumbs. I use ‘basic’ range white bread from the supermarket for breadcrumbs, the more expensive white loaves being too soft, creating a moist, doughy texture to your fish-topping.
After 30 minutes check your chips, by this time there should be some crispness, If not place back in the oven for another 5 or 10 minutes. Your chips need to show some signs of a golden crust at the edges but look as if they can benefit from a further 10-12 minutes, only then do you add the fish.
Push your chips to one side of the roasting tin and nestle your fish fillets on the other side. Spread the fillets with the tartare sauce, one tablespoon per fillet. Sprinkle over the herby breadcrumbs, ensuring each fillet is covered nicely before adding the grated lemon zest, salt and pepper. The tartare sauce not only offers a satisfying tanginess but creates a creamy, sticky base for the breadcrumbs to adhere to.
Return to the oven for 10-12 minutes, enough time for the fish to cook through and the breadcrumbs to become brown and crisp.
Serve with lemon wedges, tomato sauce and a slice of buttered white bread.