In 1950s Wellington (New Zealand), Monday was fish and chips day for my family and many other families. Shops and bakeries closed over the weekend so for two days it was not possible to replenish supplies of bread. Like countless other children, instead of carrying a cut lunch from home on Mondays, I headed for school clutching two shillings for a lunch of fish and chips. When the lunchtime bell rang at South Wellington Intermediate School a swarm of black shoes would burst through the school gates and clatter down the street to the fish and chip shop of Mr Jurkovich.
It was always crowded and hot in the shop, even in winter. Mr Jurkovich worked fast. With one hand he would lift a wire basket full of fish, or a basket of chips, from a tub of boiling oil. With his other hand he would pinch a single sheet of greased paper, slap it down on top of a big pile of newspapers on the counter and dump the steaming fish and chips on it. The pile was given a quick shake of salt and deftly wrapped up.
“I serve from the back!” Mr Jurkovich would shout in a fruitless attempt to stop children from pressing forward against his flimsy counter. On the end of his big nose a bead of sweat would form. Eventually the drop would shake off. As often as not, it would fall into a serving of fish and chips on the counter. If this happened a cheer would go up. Mr Jurkovich’s eyebrows would crinkle and he would look suspiciously around the crowd of upturned faces.
“I serve from the back!” was his only grim comment. He didn’t know much English.
But the children rejoiced. They had something to talk about and someone to tease.
“Mr Jurkovich gave you extra salt. Free… and straight out of his nose!”
The Monday lunchtime ritual of tearing open the wrapping around a serving of fish and chips… somehow it has stayed with me. It was special, it was a luxury. Walking through England I ate several meals of fish and chips, each time hoping, I suppose, to relive the intensity of this childhood memory. It never happened, of course, but nevertheless I enjoyed English fish and chips. Here are my notes on these meals, ranked from unforgettably tasty to unforgettably forgettable. I should add that it is not just the flavour of the meals that I wish to record, but equally, a glimpse of the place where the meal was eaten. Flavour is a function – at least in part – of environment. Memory of food and memory of place go together.
1. The Old Keswickian Restaurant, Keswick. August 7th
Emmy and I ate upstairs in the sit-down, table service section of the Old Keswickian Restaurant. (There is a take-away department downstairs at street level.) The Old Keswickian is especially proud of its reputation for fish and chips, but other dishes are available too. The chips were big, moderately crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The fish tasted fresh. The batter on the fish was slightly oily but very crisp and not too thick. The dish came with an optional serving of “mushy peas” – a small bowl of peas, pureed to a thick consistency that tasted like pea soup. The whole meal was freshly cooked and served with a slice of lemon. Overall the meal was memorably tasty, though I’m still undecided about the merits of mushy peas.
2. Kings Head Inn, Kings Stanley. August 22nd
The fillet of fish was not particularly fresh and it was a bit grey in colour. The batter was extremely crisp, in fact it was quite crunchy all through and all over. The chips were well coloured, crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The meal came with a flavoursome salad that included cherry tomatoes and slices of cucumber. The salad was fresh and crisp and not smothered in dressing or mayonnaise. There was also a tasty serving of peas. The meal was a “Monday special” costing £5.00 (the regular price is £9.95).
3. Mount Inn, Stanton. August 17th
The blackboard menu identified the fish as haddock. It was cooked in crisp, locally-made beer batter but tasted rather bland. The chips were a bit limp but not too bad. The meal was unique for its extras. The basic fish and chips came with peas and tartare sauce garnished with capers and gherkins. The salt was sea salt and freshly ground pepper was sprinkled over the meal. The Mount Inn stands on a hill high over Stanton Village. The atmospheric summer evening view was a bonus that helped diners overlook the small shortcomings of the meal.
4. A fish and chips kiosk in the pedestrian plaza adjacent to the Tower of London. July 10th
This was no-frills fish and chips. The piece of fish was quite big with a nice fishy taste and reasonably fresh. The batter was medium thick. The chips were bright yellow in colour. The colour might have come from the variety of potatoes used, or it might have been because of the cooking oil or some additive. The chips were not freshly cooked, however. Clearly they had been lying in the glass display counter for some time, so the bigger chips were half limp and the smaller ones had dried out and had become hard and crackly. No lemon was provided with the meal but it could be salted to taste at a buffet table beside the serving point. The meal came in a cardboard box decorated with newspaper motifs – an inventively cute substitute for traditional newspaper wrapping.
5. Royal George Hotel, Birdlip. August 20th
According to the menu the fish and chips came with “petit poids”. These were soggy and tasteless peas – no doubt from a long opened pack of frozen peas. The chips were reasonably crisp but also tasteless. The fish was cod, but it was not fresh. In fact the fish was bland, tasteless and a bit watery. The batter was thin and overcooked at the edges.The meal came with tartare sauce and lemon but these failed to impart a flavour boost. Over all, this was one of the most tasteless meals I have ever eaten.
Some twenty years ago in England we set out to try and have some “real” fish and chips. But we discovered with sinking hearts that this was already an extinct species. And why? It was no longer deemed safe to use newspaper for the wrapping (the ink had been pronounced toxic). So we got our fish and chips wrapped in newspaper-paper (i.e. unprinted newspaper). Believe you me, it just won’t do! That unforgettable smell of the hot newspaper-and-ink will stay with me forever …
And as for serving as “fish and chips” anything on a plate, let alone with such tawdry frills as peas, tartar sauce, salad …. in fact I can’t work out whether it is piteous or monstrously depraved. Woe to the unborn generations who will never know the joy of warming their hands on the hot newspaper package, and who will get their cancer of the gut some other way!
Lois, you are SUCH a romantic! You are nostalgic for the smell of newsprint mixed with cooking oil! But I have to agree, somehow there is no substitute for the old ritual of picking open the top end of a parcel of fish and chips and drawing out the hot chips one by one. If you were a true sophisticate you might sprinkle in a few drops of vinegar… but tartare sauce? and peas? and SALAD!? These are degenerate innovations that true connoisseurs reject. Even the modern innovation of unwrapping the parcel and laying the exposed fish and chips flat on the table (or worse… on a plate!), this robs you of the pleasure of digging into the “bag” of fish and chips and getting grease and salt all over your hand. Ah… the bliss of it. And I can’t agree with the modern practice of offering various kinds of fish. These are feeble substitutes for the real thing: good old shark.
Thank you for writing thiis