For the love of cod: Northern Ireland's dedication to the fish supper
One in five of us still goes to the chippy every week, so how do you explain our dedication to the humble fish supper? Kerry McKittrick reports
They might have been around for more than 150 years but fish and chips is still big business in the UK ,with more than 10,000 shops still going strong.
The ultimate comfort food, it’s been estimated that we go through 382 million portions of fish and chips each year, with a fifth of the population visiting a chippy at least once a week.
In Northern Ireland the chippy industry is certainly holding its own.
Shops here range from the traditional chippy to state-of-the art establishments experimenting with everything from the shape of their chips to the type of batter.
We’re holding our one with the rest of the country too.
Fish City in Ballynahinch was named regional winner of the National Fish & Chips Awards this week while local chain John Dory’s was declared a finalist in the Belfast Multiple Operator category.
We speak to three fish fryers – and one award-winning chef – about the secrets of our national dish.
‘There’s a real sense of community in a chippy’
Paschal Lawrance (55) lives in Londonderry with his wife Margaret, and has two children, Jonathan and Amy. He says:
My mother started Bridies Takeaway 54 years ago in a place called Irish Street in the Waterside. She’s still around, but my brothers and sisters and I have expanded to nine shops and they’re run as franchises, so I run four of those with my sisters.
I actually spent 10 years working in a mental health hospital, but I kept working for the business at the same time because I wanted to help out.
When I met Margaret I needed to cut back on the 12-hour days I was working so I decided to join the family business full-time.
I love working with food and I want to do it extremely well. I love sourcing the right products and the right people.
The secret of good fish and chips is to just keep coming out with a good product. Our shops are bright, clean and airy, with friendly staff. We also make sure we serve reasonable-sized portions. You know you’ll find the same thing in all of our shops.
Our fish is sourced by a guy in Donegal who finds it all over Ireland and we make sure we only serve fresh fish. Our batter is also made from Millford Flour which comes from Donegal.
Fish and chips is still popular, but we’ve noticed that the younger generation now tend to go for chicken. They have burgers or goujons or nuggets with all sorts of sauces. That doesn’t mean people don’t eat fish and chips anymore, though.
We have our regulars who come in two or three times a week and order the same thing each time. There’s certainly a sense of community that builds up around a chippy, particularly in a residential area where you get to know the faces that come in. People bring their children in for their tea sometimes.
Both of my children have come into the business, too, as the third generation. It’s great as we get a bit of a break as the four shops are open seven days a week until midnight.”
‘The fish we serve here is just beautiful’
Cathy Jordan (27) lives in Belfast with her daughter Katie Grace (5) and is a supervisor at John Long’s on Athol Street. She says:
I started working at a chippy on the Ormeau Road and the guy I worked for decided to sell up eight years ago. He knew John Copeland, who owns Long’s, and got me this job.
I’ve always liked working here. We have lots of customers coming in and you have great craic with your regulars — some people come in every single day.
We also have a great team and we’re able to have a laugh.
Long’s has been around for 100 years and it’s tucked away, but people still love coming here. I think the secret is the fish — the fish we serve here is beautiful. Everything here comes straight off the boat in Aberdeen and is always fresh, we never serve frozen. The best fish supper is when you sit in the restaurant so you have it straight out of the fryer. I have one for my lunch each Friday with mushy peas, curry sauce and a round of bread and butter.
The batter is made each morning by me, John the owner and Pam the manager, and the recipe is top secret. We also fry our chips in beef dripping, which makes all the difference compared to ordinary oil.
We also make our own pasties which are very popular. Like everything else, they’re done fresh each morning.
Long’s is so famous we’ve have lots of celebrities drop in.
Sean Bean came in one day, although it took us a while to figure out it was him.
Take That have been here and Ross Kemp, but I missed them.”
‘It’s still one of the healthier takeouts’
Niall McKenna is a chef and restaurateur. He says:
Because I love them too much, I try not to eat too much fish and chips. Once a month, though, the whole family will have fish and chips from somewhere like Long’s or Cafe Fish on the Lisburn Road.
Classic beer batter fish came from France, but it’s been eaten here for years. Now it’s a staple for most people.
These days it comes in all sorts of different forms. I do a beer battered one, a breaded one, a panko one — that’s Japanese breadcrumbs — and a tempura one. Of course it depends on how it’s cooked, but fish and chips is one of the healthier takeouts you can get these days.
Chinese and Indian takeaways will use flavour enhancers and thickening agents.
Nowadays a lot of fish and chip shops use rapeseed oil which is much better than dripping.”
‘This isn’t just a job, there’s a career here’
Mark Polley (53) is the director of Marlin Retail Ltd which encompasses the fish and chip shop chain John Dory’s. He lives in Belfast with his wife Mandy. He says:
My sister-in-law and I started in this business in 1984 by opening a chip shop in Carryduff. We’ve expanded over the years. We ran the business as a restaurant for a long time before shifting the focus on to takeaway food. The original shop was called the Copper Kettle, but the whole thing has expanded to John Dory’s and also includes some sandwich shops and outside catering.
I’m still very hands on — we opened our last shop in November and I’ve worked in it nearly every day. It’s all part of building a team up.
We didn’t have much experience in the trade as I come from a civil engineering background but as things developed so did a passion for fish and chips. I’ve learned so much over the years since we started off.
We’re very passionate about where we source our product from and also passionate about training our staff properly and affording them opportunities. One of the things we’ve tried to do is bring people in and explain to them that this isn’t just a job, there is a career here. All of our managers bar one have worked their way through the John Dory’s system.
Fish and chips have changed very little over the years — the principles and processes remain the same, although everyone has their own style and usually their own batter.
The key to good fish and chips is sourcing good ingredients.
The most variable ingredient is the potatoes and you cannot grow good chipping potatoes on the island of Ireland. We work through local producers as much as we can but our potatoes, usually Maris Pipers, often come from the south of England.
When it comes to the fish, the buzzword these days is sustainability. Our cod comes from well-managed stock in Iceland — around the British Isles cod stocks have been listed as endangered for decades. If we don’t use sustainable fish and deplete current stocks then there won’t be anything left for future generations.
Everyone has their own batter recipe or tweaks their own. Although 90% of the fish we sell is battered, you can also have it breaded, which is a little healthier.
I always try and use the best quality fish and the best quality potatoes and we invest in training so we have consistency across our shops. At the end of the day if you have a good product and produce it well then it will sell itself — that’s why people go to fish and chip shops on their friends’ recommendations.
We also try to produce value for money. At the minute each of our menus has two vouchers in it for two fish suppers for £10 and that competes with other fast food. It’s affordable so the business has survived the recession and it’s packed with good things. Fish has lots of Omega-3 and we know our batter has no artificial additives. A portion of fish and chips with mushy peas is only about 450 calories. That’s by far the lowest fat content of takeaway food.
My own choice would be fish and chips, but breaded not battered, with a side of mushy peas and salt and vinegar.
Niall McKenna’s baked fish with chips
For the chips
2 tbsps olive oil
1kg potatoes, skin on but cleaned and cut into chips
1 onion, finely diced
6 cloves garlic, finely diced or grated
For the fish
800g of salmon, haddock fillets or cod loins with the skin on juice of 1 lemon
Start by pre-heating the oven at 190C. Add the oil to the roasting tray, add in the chips and mix with onion and garlic. Mix thoroughly and place in oven for 30 minutes, turning over at the 15 minute mark.
Squeeze the lemon over the fish fillets and place on top of the chips at the 30 minute mark.
Cook for 10 minutes until you see the fish has cooked through. You can garnish with a selection of herbs (parsley, dill or coriander), season with salt and pepper, and serve.