FISH AND CHIPS IN SIX EASY STEPS

Greasy chips and fish in soggy batter? Not if you follow Chris Geale's intructions
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The Independent Culture
What are we doing giving out Sonia Stevenson's fritto misto di mare, an Italian dish? Are not our own fried fish and chips the most famous in the world?

At Geale's, in London's Notting Hill Gate, they have been frying them for 65 years, first as a local fish and chip shop, converting to a restaurant in Farmer Street in 1965. Chris Geale, a third-generation fish and chipper, has agreed to share his know-how.

There seems to be no dish so doggedly British as fish and chips, but it's not a particularly historic one, dating back merely to the end of the last century. Its origins are described in Gerald Priestland's popular history, Frying Tonight. He suggests that while fried fish, sold as a convenience food, surfaced around 1835, chips in their present form didn't appear until the mid-1880s. We'd always eaten potatoes as shallow-fried chunks but in 1884, says Priestland, imported French deep-fryers arrived, for the specific cooking of peeled a la mode potatoes.

Until 1940, due to the pungent smells from the undeodorised oils and fats used, fish and chip frying, along with blood-boilers' and gut -scrapers', was officially classed as "an offensive trade". It's now a very respectable profession and, in spite of inroads made by burgers, the KFC chain, Indian and Chinese takeaways, it is still the most popular fast food in Britain.

Mr Geale attributes the family's success to the exceptional flavour of his fish which is achieved by frying the fish in beef dripping rather than vegetable oil. "After the BSE scare, I stopped using beef fat, but customers complained." Mr Geale doesn't recommend deep-frying at home, and certainly not in dripping. "We cook at temperatures which are dangerous at home, the fish at 375F (200C) which is very hot. It's risky, since beef dripping catches fire at 420F (225C)."

The main feature of fish frying, he says, is to seal the batter and stop the fat getting into the food. He'd suggest shallow-frying at home, cooking small nuggets of fish in a batter, perhaps even in a wok.

Mr Geale has fish delivered daily from Grimsby: cod, haddock, sole, plaice, rock salmon. It is filleted (step 1), cut into 8-10oz pieces, the skin left on. "The skin holds it together in cooking. People like to eat it."

The batter is a commercial mix. They dust the fillets of fish in a bowl of very fine rice flour (step 2), dip it in the bucket of batter (step 3), shaking off as much as possible. "I'm in the business of selling fish, not batter. There are some who give fish fryers a bad name." The fish is cooked for six to seven minutes starting at 380F, allowing for the temperature to drop to 375F (step 4).

"I don't use a thermometer," says a voice at his elbow. "When it catches fire, you know the fat is too hot." Mr Geale's fish cook, Sam, who trained at The Seashell in Lisson Grove, is Egyptian. But cooking British fish and chips is second nature to him (do not the Egyptians have a wonderful tradition of deep- frying: think of those crunchy, moist balls of falafel?)

Sam doesn't time the fish. His ear rather than his eye tells him when they are done. "I can hear the fish talking to me. Each piece is different. They should be moist. Too dry and they are like cotton wool." (step 5)

Sam uses a commercial vegetable fat for the chips, but recommends sunflower or corn oil for the home cook. The quality of the potatoes is critical. Early season new potatoes are too wet, while old potatoes cook quickly and go brown too soon. The chipped potatoes need to be washed, well-dried then cooked in very, very hot oil. Serve with fish, peas and lemon (step 6).

There is another method for pommes frites, with potatoes cut more thinly, he says. Cook the chips in oil on a very low heat for 15 minutes. Drain, then raise the heat of the fat to around 380F, and fry the chips in small batches, crisping up the outsides in half a minute. Be warned, though, don't set fire to the kitchen!

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