Fish & chips are so much a part of our National heritage that it would be difficult to imagine life without them. Why should a simple meal of potatoes and fish hold such a high position in the annals of British Tradition? and why have they survived their status after a great surge in convenience foods and the influx of Chinese take-aways, American fried chicken, Greek kebabs, Italian pizzas and other members of the fast-food industry? The answer is quite simple – Fish & Chips were first!
Originality always bears a special seal; anything that follows may be good, interesting, unusual, but the original concept stands above the rest, particularly if it maintains popularity for some years before rivals appear and especially (as in the case of Fish & Chips) if it exists when national crises occur-the two World Wars, the depression, etc. These facts give it a stamp, it is remembered with nostalgia, it becomes a part of history, and then a tradition.
History Of the Fish
Fish has been included in mans’ diet since prehistoric times and many of the ancient civilisations held it in great esteem, not only for its culinary use but also for its sacred or magical properties.
The Egyptians developed a thriving trade in dried and salted fish. The Romans are known to have had officially controlled fish markets. Long before then the Peruvian Incas (who also cultivated potatoes – could they possibly be the originators of our great British Dish?) had their fish brought from the coast by relays of runners. The early Christians adopted the fish as their secret symbol. When Christianity was introduced into Britain it was customary to fast on Fridays in commemoration of Christ’s death, but as the faith expanded it became difficult to enforce total fasting. Abstention from meat replaced the fasting law and fish was eaten as a substitute.
The people in England (apart from those living near the coast) ate preserved or fresh-water fish, until the late 18th century when road transport improved – in 1786 over 500 horse-drawn loads of fish were taken from Brixham to Billingsgate. In the 1830s ice was being used to keep the fish fresh and at the same time Grimsby boats were pioneering the shipment of live fish in flooded containers. Billingsgate market had to be rebuilt in 1852 to cope with the vast amounts of fish and special ‘fish trains’ were provided to transport it to various parts of the country. Large fish markets were also being built in Northern cities. In 1880, the nutritionist Dr. M. Granville stated that fish could worthily replace meat as the staple diet… it was highly nutritious and could relieve the over-worked population of physical and mental suffering.
The fish trade, since then, has developed into a highly professional industry and has, inevitably perhaps, become involved in political and economic wranglings, but despite its ups and downs (and what industry doesn’t have them?) and with no small thanks to the popularity of Fish & Chips, it is today an essential part of our culinary life
History Of the Potato
It was Christopher Columbus who brought the sweet potato, or yam, to Spain from Haiti in 1492. The vegetable was not easily cultivated in Europe and because of its scarcity was served as a crystallized delicacy. Its exotic origin also gave it a reputation for being a potent aphrodisiac.
The true potato was discovered in Peru by the conquistadores some time in the early 1530s. The Peruvian Indians had been cultivating the potato since 3,000 B. C. and had discovered a way of preserving it bya combined freezing and drying process. The Peruvians endowed the potato with magical properties – the plant could be propagated by cutting off pieces of tuber which contained ‘eyes’ and this produced the legend of a god whose dismembered body rose again in full, wherever the limbs had fallen! Llama blood was often sprinkled over seed potatoes and it is believed that this is connected with the custom in Ireland of sprinkling potato fields with holy water and starting to plant on Good Friday.
It is generally thought that a Spanish missionary brought the first potatoes from Peru to Spain in 1570. By 1601, the potato was being cultivated in Italy and was considered as common as carrots and turnips.
How the potato eventually reached England is uncertain. Legend has it that Sir Francis Drake gave some to Walter Raleigh who planted them on his estate in Ireland. Raleigh inadvertently ate the berries instead of the roots and then threw the plants away. It is known that the potato was introduced into Ireland in the 1580s and was the first part of Britain to grow large quantities.
The European potato, in its early history, was dogged with fanciful attributes, good and bad. In his Herbal of 1710, William Salmon wrote ‘they nourish the whole body, restore in consumptions and provoke lust …causing fruitfulness in both sexes’. This and similar claims were later dismissed, but it was admitted that the potato is apt to produce windiness.’
Not until the American and Napoleonic wars and consequent fear of lost foreign grain and meat supplies, did British farmers take to planting potatoes on a large scale.
In 1845 Potato Blight struck the crops all over Europe. The results were bad enough for those countries who had a fairly mixed diet, but for Ireland, whose people were entirely dependent on the potato, the effects were devastating – more than a million people died of starvation or disease.
Yet again, wars became a reason for farmers to increase their potato crops. In 1914 they produced over 3 million tons, after the war the tonnage was 5 million, by 1945 it was raised to nearly 9 million.
Today the potato has many forms: small and new, it comes fresh from the fields; swimming in preserved juice, it comes par-boiled in tins; it comes in dehydrated powder or granular form; as a crisp it is cut into slices, sticks and numerous other shapes, fried, flavoured and dried, then sealed in air-tight bags; last but not least, it appears in the form of a straight or crinkled, blanched or par-fried, frozen chip.
The Successful Marriage of the Fish and the Chip
There has been a long and arduous debate as to who first introduced the fried fish to the fried chip. There are records of fried fish being sold by street traders in the 1840s. They joined the already flourishing whelk sellers, tea and coffee stall keepers, sellers of muffins, eels, ginger beer, sheeps’ trotters, hot potatoes and the newly arrived ice cream. The fish (usually bought from the surplus stocks of local fishmongers) was plaice or sole. It was dipped in flour and water, then shallow fried in oil, often accompanied by a slice of bread and sold for one penny. The baked potato trade started in 1843 and these were sometimes sold with the fish. At the time of the Great Exhibition (1851) there were several ‘fried fish shops’ in the centre of London.
In 1965 the Fish Friers Review made a second attempt (the first was in 1949) to discover the oldest Fish & Chip business in Britain. It was decided, after much debate, that Malins’ of Old Ford Road, London, were the oldest. Albert Malin believed (but could not prove) that his Great Uncle or Great Grandfather had owned a Fish & Chip shop in the early 1860s. In 1884 the family moved to Old Ford Road where the business continued.
There were cries from the North when this decision was made. It was believed by many that the trade was started in the North and that Lees’ of Mossley in Lancashire was older than Malins’. In 1863 John Lees was selling pea soup with pigs’ trotters in a small wooden hut. After a visit to Oldham, where he had seen a man selling ‘French Style Chipped Potatoes’, he decided to include them with his soup and trotters. (The potatoes then, and for some years later, were unpeeled and so after frying had a crispy edge to them.) But there was no proof that he was also frying fish. In 1897 the Lees moved into a shop, above which was later written ‘The Oldest Chip Potato Establishment in the World.’ Again there is no mention of fish, but it has to be remembered that generally the people of Lancashire refer to a Fish & Chip shop as ‘The Chippy’, in Yorkshire and other areas the word ‘Fish’ comes first.
There are several other reasons for believing that Fish & Chips started in the North.
A lady by the name of ‘Granny’ Duce is said to have owned several combined green-grocery and Fish & Chip shops in Bradford. In the mid 1860s she sold the businesses and moved to London where she started again, developing a chain of Fish Cafes.
An Oldham man named Dyson, a tripe-dresser by trade, is said to have asked an iron foundry in Rochdale, to make a range for frying both Fish & Chips.
Three more range manufacturers, The Davy Machine Company (Triumph-Scarbron) of Leeds, Faulkner and Rouse, both of Oldham, became involved in the Range Industry in the 1870s.
So there it is. Lots of evidence, but nothing absolutely concrete. It will probably never be known where and when the Fish and the Chip came together – it could have happened in a number of places at more or less the same time. The important thing is that Fish & Chips have become The Great British Dish, a British Institution – and may it always remain so!