Fish and chips have been slowly vanishing from our list of favourite foods, overtaken and replaced by modern, trendy and tasty alternative fast foods. Until 20 years ago there were 35,000 chip shops across Britain and Ireland. Today about 10,500 still operate and the fightback has begun.
In many cases, a fish and chip shop dominates the fast food sector in its immediate area. This is a tribute to owner persistence, attention to detail and understanding that fast food consumers have changed, got younger and have broader appetites.
So last week at the annual UK Fish and Chip awards in London, the sight of 600 guests which included just about everyone from the fish and chip ecology including fishermen, processors, potato merchants, oil and condiments traders, kitchen manufacturers and the couples and families who run the corner chip shop was uplifting and revelatory. There is clearly life in the chip shop sector and there is an element of reinvention going on too.
Fish stock sustainability is now a priority and you will see the MSC signs (Marine Stewardship and Council) certifying the place serves fish frozen at sea. Much of this is Norwegian. The Norwegians manage their cod and haddock fisheries and monitor catches better than anybody and are the standard against which the UK and Irish fishing sectors measure themselves. Yet there are many alternatives to the still hugely popular cod and haddock which are caught closer to home. Hake, coley, whiting and other perfectly good round white fish are available fresh (not frozen at sea) from Kilkeel, Ardglass and Portavogie.
Fish City in the heart of Belfast is one of the more forward-thinking chip shops. It is in fact a licensed restaurant with a takeaway. But it is a fish and chip shop through and through. This is an important distinction because I would not apply the same criteria when weighing up a conventional restaurant to a chip shop. Having said that, the quality of what Fish City does is exemplary. Fresh oysters from Carlingford, Donegal and Galway are big, bright and as shiny as pale sapphires served with a top class little mignonette. A classic cod supper with mushy peas and tartare sauce is textbook. To my right on this occasion is Captain John Rees OBE, formerly of the fisheries protection fleet and who knows his fish. He nods approvingly, appreciating the perfect texture of the fish. He has some questions about the light batter.
Batter is always a matter for conjecture. In the case of Fish City, the conventional beer batter is eschewed for reasons of greasiness and proportion, says owner John. There is too much cheating going on with cheap batter being used to make a piece of fish appear so much bigger. The lighter tempura-like batter John prefers is not as brittle but provides a proportionate coating to the fish.
Fish City scooped the award for menu development and innovation last week at the annual Seafish UK Fish and Chip awards, no mean feat when you consider how much further advanced British chip shops are in terms of reinvention. Over there, the attention to sustainability, the promotion of healthy eating, gluten-free menus, staff training and community involvement, are now a big thing for chip shops.
Fish City, does a lot of this as does the excellent Dolphin in Dungannon which has made it to the final top 10 for the last five years. Not bad considering there are 10,500 chip shops across the country. It means you will get gluten-free salt and chilli squid, GF smoked salmon, GF seafood chowder, vegan crispy spicy cauliflower wings, GF grilled hake, GF provencal fish stew, fisherman's curry, prawn tacos, and even a calorie-calculated menu for the full truth.
There is also a very decent wine list. My tip for a good tipple with fish and chips (and anything else on this menu for that matter) is the Viognier.
Oysters x 6 ..................................£16.95
Thai fish cakes ..............................£8.50
Scampi starter ............................. £8.25
Haddock and chips (Med) . £14.50
Cod goujons ................................ £13.95
Scampi main .............................. £16.95
Bottle Viognier ........................... £28.00