Summer is over and the days are growing shorter. Quiz night at The Red Lion in the village has started up again, the kids have gone back to school and, like starlings massing for (get on with it, ed)…actually I don’t know what starlings get together for, and I don’t really care, but what I was trying to say, in a measured, poetic way, was that it’s time once more to go down the chippie on a Friday night.
Our towns may be studded with McDonalds and KFCs and Burger Kings, but do they serve those ridiculous limp stringy things they call fries with a pot of mushy peas or curry sauce? No. They do not. Do they sell whacking great portions of haddock and chips? No. Ditto. Hear that strange rattling sound? That’s the ghost of McDonalds founder Ray Kroc gnashing his teeth. There are about 10,500 fish and chip shops in Britain and 1,200 branches of McDonalds. Your happy meals are all very well, Ray, but you can’t beat a good British chippie.
Fried fish was apparently introduced to the Brits by Jewish refugees from Portugal in the 16th century. I love to think of Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe going out for battered haddock on a Friday night, but they would have had to wait for nearly 300 years to get chips with it which, even in Britain, is quite a long queue. Chips came along in the 1800s and got a mention in A Tale of Two Cities (published in 1859): ‘Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil’. It was left to an enterprising bloke called Joseph Malin to put the two together and open the first fish and chip shop in London in 1860.
There is a strange tradition in the UK, common to chippies and hairdressers, that they have to give themselves ridiculously punned names: for example, the rather common Jolly Fryer or Frying Scotsman, the imaginative A Salt n Battered (Sheffield), and the frankly wacky A Fish Called Rhondda (in South Wales, natch). (This is going off the point slightly, but my favourite hairdressing salon title is Scissors Palace in west London).
You can always tell a good chippie, by the length of the queue. Ours, on a Friday night, has people lining up on the pavement outside. Which means you don’t get fish that’s been waiting about for several centuries. It’s straight out of the frier, all golden and crisp and lovely. And when it’s cold outside there is nothing nicer than edging into the shop’s steamy warmth, leaning on the hot aluminium counter and listening to your fellow humans. My favourite overheard quote so far was from a young lad who announced: ‘There’s a boy in my class from South Africa, mum. His family came here because somebody stole his curtains.’
So there you go. But if you really want some food for thought, get this. Remember at the start I mentioned the Red Lion quiz night? One of the questions was, ‘Which is the most climbed mountain in the world?’ We scoffed at our daughter for insisting it was Mount Fuji. We put down Snowdonia. (On the grounds that it’s easy to climb).
Answer? Yep. Mount Fuji.
Pictures from Creative Commons, courtesy of