Helen Peacocke goes fishing for the origins of a national dish that still gets the mouth watering

Although quite a few pubs have now added takeaway fish and chips to their menus, I must admit that I find those moments standing in a queue at my local chippy waiting for my order to be wrapped, after they have been smothered with salt and malt vinegar, to be an important part of the fish and chip experience. I am sure I am not the only one whose saliva glands are working overtime by the time that warm package is handed to me.

They used to be wrapped in newspaper until health-and-safety rules kicked in. In those days long gone, they were served with little bits of batter that had dripped from the fish, offered free as an extra or charged at a very low price. They were certainly eaten with great enthusiasm when I was a child.

It’s National Chip Week this week, a celebration of 1.6 million tonnes of potatoes which are turned into chips in the UK every year, sold alongside 247 million servings of fish.

Oxfordshire is lucky — we have an abundance of excellent fish and chip shops, including the independently owned Posh Fish, London Road, Oxford, which offers both restaurant service and take away. This shop has been open for more than 25 years. Then there’s Simon’s Fish and Chips in the Cowley Road and the Oxford Fish and Chip shop in the Iffley Road. In the centre of Oxford there’s Carfax Fish and Chips, to be found in a little lane off the High Street.

Banbury offers several outlets, perhaps the most popular being the Fairway Fish Bar, a family-run establishment that offers a local delivery service and gluten-free batter. The Happy Plaice fish and chip van can be found in South Oxfordshire in villages including Grove and Steventon. Long Hanborough boasts the newly established Off the Hook which serves fish caught in both Icelandic waters and the North Atlantic. The potatoes are prepared on site, which gives their chips a delightful fresh flavour. In Eynsham you will find the recently refurbished Smarts Fish and Chips, and there’s a Smarts fish shop in the Witney Market Square too.

The marriage of fish and chips began to take off during the second half of the 19th century when fish used to be fried in butter, and when only the very wealthy could afford fresh fish unless they lived along the coast. At first it was baked potatoes rather than chips that were served with the fried fish.

Potatoes took some time to be accepted, due in part to the fact that they were of the same family as belladonna — deadly nightshade.

Fish and chips came separately to prominence as street foods. It was Charles Dickens who offered the first reference to this dish in Oliver Twist (published in 1838) when he mentioned the presence of the fried fish warehouse in a dismal alley leading to Saffron Hill, where Snow Hill and Holborn Hill meet. He refers to chips in his Tale of Two Cities, where he makes reference to “husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil available in the Saint-Antoine suburb of Paris”.

The coming of the railways played a key role in the popularity of fish too, and also the increasing availability of ice which helped keep the fish fresh as it was transported round the country.

It’s thought that there were as many as 1,200 fish and chip shops in London alone by 1906. They were also emerging in towns along the coast, where fish couldn’t be fresher. One estimate claimed that the number of shops in Britain had already reached 25,000 by 1910.

The Oxford Times:
Fish and chips meal at the Old Swan & Minster Mill, at Minster Lovell

As fish and chips offered a nutritious, cheap and tasty food for the lower classes the popularity of this dish was assured. This spread revolved around the increasing supply of fish and potatoes, helped by technological developments. Most importantly, the availability of fresh fish transformed this from a food of the wealthy to part of the diet of the masses.

It’s thought that 20 per cent of the fish caught by British trawlers on the eve of the First World War and at least 10 per cent of potatoes grown here were cooked in fish and chip shops.

Although Indian takeaways have entered our food scene, fish and chips still outsell Indian takeaways two to one.

To create the perfect chip, first you must begin with the correct potato. A waxy potato will not do. You are looking for a potato which will give you a chip that is all fluffy on the inside and crisp and crunchy on the outside. This means Maris Piper potatoes or King Edwards.

Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal obtains his tasty chips by cooking them three times, once at 130C for seven or eight minutes until cooked but uncoloured, then twice more at 180C, having rested them in between in the fridge. The result elevates the humble chip to the realms of gastronomic excellence.

Try them — you won’t regret it.