The unlikely origin of fish and chips
Published: 18th Dec 2009 02:37:47
Fish and chips are a national institution - and now chippies across the country are preparing to celebrate the 150th birthday of our most famous fast food.
Winston Churchill called them "the good companions". John Lennon smothered his in tomato ketchup. Michael Jackson liked them with mushy peas.
They sustained morale through two world wars and helped fuel Britain's industrial prime.
For generations, fish and chips have fed millions of memories - eaten with greasy fingers on a seaside holiday, a pay-day treat at the end of the working week or a late-night supper on the way home from the pub.
Few can resist the mouth-watering combination - moist white fish in crisp golden batter, served with a generous portion of hot, fluffy chips.
Everyone has their own preferences and tastes vary from one part of the country to another. Cod or haddock? Salt and vinegar? Pickled onion? Scraps?
Like Morecambe and Wise or Wallace and Gromit, fish and chips are a classic double act - and yet they started life as solo performers. And their roots are not as British as you might think.
The story of the humble chip goes back to the 17th Century to either Belgium or France, depending who you believe.
Oddly enough, the chip may have been invented as a substitute for fish, rather than an accompaniment. When the rivers froze over and nothing could be caught, resourceful housewives began cutting potatoes into fishy shapes and frying them as an alternative.
Around the same time, fried fish was introduced into Britain by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain.
The fish was usually sold by street sellers from large trays hung round their necks. Charles Dickens refers to an early fish shop or "fried fish warehouse" in Oliver Twist (1839) where the fish generally came with bread or baked potatoes.
North or south?
Who first had the bright idea to marry fish with chips remains the subject of fierce controversy and we will probably never know for sure. It is safe to say it was somewhere in England but arguments rage over whether it was up north or down south.
Some credit a northern entrepreneur called John Lees. As early as 1863, it is believed he was selling fish and chips out of a wooden hut at Mossley market in industrial Lancashire.
Others claim the first combined fish 'n' chip shop was actually opened by a Jewish immigrant, Joseph Malin, within the sound of Bow Bells in East London around 1860.
However it came about, the marriage quickly caught on. At a time when working-class diets were bleak and unvaried, fish and chips were a tasty break from the norm.
Outlets sprung up across the country and soon they were as much a part of Victorian England as steam trains and smog.
Italian migrants passing through English towns and cities saw the growing queues and sensed a business opportunity, setting up shops in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
To keep prices down, portions were often wrapped in old newspaper - a practice that survived as late as the 1980s when it was ruled unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink without grease-proof paper in between.
It has even been suggested that fish and chips helped win World War I.
According to Professor John Walton, author of Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, the government made safeguarding supplies a priority.
"The cabinet knew it was vital to keep families on the home front in good heart," says Professor Walton. "Unlike the German regime that failed to keep its people well fed and that was one reason why Germany was defeated.
"Historians can sometimes be a bit snooty about these things but fish and chips played a big part in bringing contentment and staving off disaffection."
George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) put fish and chips first among the home comforts that helped keep the masses happy and "averted revolution".
During World War II, ministers bent over backwards to make sure fish and chips were one of the few foods that were never rationed.
These days, fish and chips are no longer king of the takeaway. Burgers, fried chicken, pizza, Indian and Chinese dishes all now outsell fried fish.
Cost is part of the problem. Strains on stocks of cod and haddock have pushed prices up, while health concerns about deep-fried food have turned many consumers away.
But - despite the recession - sales are rising, according to Seafish, the official authority on all things seafood. Their researchers reckon fish and chips are not as bad for us as many other takeaways, containing fewer calories and less fat.
'Tricks of the trade'
At the Leeds headquarters of the National Federation of Fish Friers, they say the downturn has boosted business as people seek "comfort food" in tough times.
The three-day course it runs for newcomers keen to join the profession has seen a doubling in demand for places. Here trainees can learn the tricks of the trade.
Among them is Bill Bradbury, who has travelled from Canada just to come on this course and get hands-on experience.
Under the tutor's careful gaze, Bill tentatively lowers a carefully-battered fish into the hot chrome fryer. As it touches the bubbling oil, it sizzles furiously.
Bill was recently made redundant from a steel company in Alberta and is planning to sink his savings into a fish and chip shop back home.
"There's definitely a market for it. There's a big British army base nearby and loads of ex-pats who are desperate for a good chippy.
"Friends were all offering me money to come. They were saying 'please, it would be great if someone could make proper fish and chips.'"
The pupils break for lunch. No prizes for guessing what is on the menu.
There are smiles all round as super-sized bottles of salt and vinegar are passed from one student to another.
Bill grabs a small plastic fork and grins as he spears a hunk of golden haddock and a piping hot chip. A burst of steam rises as he tucks in: "Delicious."
A century and a half on, this great British staple still goes down a treat.
At 09:08:12 in EnglandA Kent dockyard that 100 years ago formed a key naval base is staging an exhibition looking at how World War One was fought at sea.
At 09:03:34 in EnglandOne of the largest population studies in the world now wants the grandparents of the original children to join in.
At 09:00:24 in Northern IrelandA company that plans to use fracking to extract natural gas in County Fermanagh has said it has obtained an injunction to prevent unlawful access to a quarry.
At 08:57:46 in SportChelsea boss Jose Mourinho claims he pulled out of a bid to sign left-back Luke Shaw this summer because his wage demands would have "killed" the club.
At 08:53:33 in ScotlandA woman has been airlifted to hospital following a crash in the Highlands involving a minibus.
At 08:23:18 in WalesFriends of a 73-year-old Denbigh man missing in Crete say they hope to find a lead as they mount a search for him.
At 08:12:13 in SportRhythmic gymnasts Frankie Jones and Laura Halford have the chance to win Wales' first gold medal of the Commonwealth Games on Saturday.
At 08:05:01 in EnglandRail passengers in parts of southern England and Wales are facing further travel problems after stormy weather caused "major disruption" on Friday.
At 07:42:42 in EnglandResidents have raised more than £60,000 to keep a sculpture that was on loan to their County Durham town.
At 07:22:48 in EnglandThe 200th anniversary of Britain's oldest seaside pier is being celebrated this weekend.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2009. The unlikely origin of fish and chips [Online] (Updated 18th Dec 2009)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/5338/The-unlikely-origin-of-fish-and-chips [Accessed 26th Jul 2014]
News In Other Categories
A company that plans to use fracking to extract natural gas in County Fermanagh has said it has obtained an injunction to prevent unlawful access to a quarry.
A woman has been airlifted to hospital following a crash in the Highlands involving a minibus.
Rail passengers in parts of southern England and Wales are facing further travel problems after stormy weather caused "major disruption" on Friday.
A group of local councils in England is formally asking the government for new powers to tax large supermarkets.
With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
It's exactly half a century since the premiere of Fiddler on the Roof - among the most successful stage musicals written to date. In 1964 Sheldon Harnick and his colleagues worried that the setting, a small Jewish township in eastern Europe in the early 1900s, might limit the show's appeal. But, says Harnick, the show's real subject is a universal one - family.