Could do batter

He said fish and chips are a national disgrace. You said, 'get out of town'. Well, super-fry guy Terry Durack has done just that. He's travelled Britain rating famed chip shops (including Rick Stein's). This is what he found...
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Indy Lifestyle Online

You told me to get out of London. Disgusted, you demanded I went North. You pleaded with me to try Leeds. You implored me to head for the seaside. You even told me, politely and not so politely, to go and get some advice from someone with more knowledge, intelligence, good looks and expertise than myself, someone like Rick Stein. Some of you also told me to go to hell, but as I consider that anyone researching the state of fish and chips in this country is already there, I took little notice.

You told me to get out of London. Disgusted, you demanded I went North. You pleaded with me to try Leeds. You implored me to head for the seaside. You even told me, politely and not so politely, to go and get some advice from someone with more knowledge, intelligence, good looks and expertise than myself, someone like Rick Stein. Some of you also told me to go to hell, but as I consider that anyone researching the state of fish and chips in this country is already there, I took little notice.

Ever since my heartfelt complaints ( click here to read 28 March article) decrying the sad, greasy, calorie-laden travesty that has become British fish and chips, you, dear readers, have risen almost as one calling for my blood and insisting that I be made to see the error of my ways. Thank heavens they have abolished the stocks in this country. (They have, haven't they?)

Being the easily scared character that I am, I chose to heed much of your advice. In Manchester, for instance, the Station Chippy near Piccadilly was highly recommended by several locals. For the life of me, I can't see why. Perhaps because it is loud and lively, filled with that comforting chippy fug, and offers warming trays of savoury puddings and Sargasso seas of mushy peas as well as fish and chips. But the oil oozed alarmingly from the thick batter, the haddock was thin, firm, and tasted of nothing and the chips were undistinguished.

Next, I turned to that bible of all things Mancunian, City Life magazine, which as luck would have it, carried a small article on the Five Best City Chippies. Actually, they only listed four; I think I can guess their problem.

I tried the Kingfisher Fish Bar in Tib Street, which offers special deals for pensioners. I would have happily given my cod and chips to a pensioner because both the chips and the fish had been sitting around for a while and felt very tired, and I thought pensioners might feel a certain sympathy with that.

Sorry Manchester. I would have prodded deeper into your vats, but I am afraid that I had other fish to fry and they were in Leeds.

Ah, Leeds! If there is a spiritual home to fishery-chippery, then this is it. In 1928, just a spud's throw away in nearby Guiseley, Harry Ramsden opened his first chip shop in a tiny wooden hut. (I have dealt with the modern day Harry Ramsden's before, and please God don't make me go there again.) Today, Leeds serves as the base of the National Federation of Fish Fryers. It is also home to what is generally regarded as the holy trinity of chippies in these parts. Midgley's, Brett's and Bryan's ring the hallowed Headingley oval like a closeknit slips cordon.

And, in fact, it was not a complete maritime disaster. I liked the good-natured people serving at Midgley's and their haddock had a good clean crunch to it. At Bryan's, the haddock was * even better, a good chunky piece of fish with a sweet, fresh flavour. But the chips were universally pale and pasty, soft and mushy. It's as if people like them like that around here.

"We do," says Richard Allen, chef at the local Harvey Nichols Fourth Floor restaurant. "For us, soft chips are cosy and familiar, a taste of home. If you want crisp chips, go to Lancashire." Having been to Lancashire, I assure him that while the chips there are meant to be crisp, they would pass a Yorkshireman's muster anytime.

As for Brett's, I think I caught them on a bad day, unless Yorkshire also likes its chips glistening with excess oil and prefers the batter on its haddock to crumble and fall apart.

To repair the damaged taste buds, I found solace over one of the finest alternative piscine-and-potato combinations to be found: a whole grilled sea bass and a bowl of earthy little Jersey Royals at Fishworks in Chiswick, west London. Fresh, fabulous and fairly priced, it is a beacon of hope in this battered and deep-fried land. One of four fish shop/fish restaurants set up by fishmonger, chef and restaurateur Mitchell Tonks, Fishworks rewrites the rule books by serving neither fried fish nor chips.

"Why fry when you can grill?" asks Tonks. "There is nothing wrong with a good bowl of chips, but why have them with everything when there is so much choice?"

He says the real problem is that too many chippies cook to a price. "Most fish and chip shops buy everything from a manufacturer and processor - frozen chips, batter mix, recycled oil, curry sauce, pre-battered fish, pre-portioned fish, mushy peas..." he shakes his head. "If there was a chippy filleting its own fish, making its own batter, hand-cutting its own chips, using species other than cod and haddock and charging properly for it, then I am sure they would do fabulously well."

Hmm, sounds like a job for Rick Stein, Seafood Superhero of Our Times.

As serendipity would have it, everyone's favourite fish chef has just opened a very swish quayside fish and chip shop and café in Padstow, next door to the Stein's Deli, underneath his Padstow Seafood School, and just down the road from his Seafood Restaurant and Rick Stein's Cafe. Now if Rick Stein can't do good fish and chips, nobody can.

Designed by the dynamic Jill Stein, Stein's Fish & Chips is to chippies what the born-again Wembley promises to be to football stadiums. It's gorgeous. To the left is the shop, gleaming with white tiles and banks of stainless-steel fryers. At the front is a large refrigerated cabinet filled with great looking fish, meticulously filleted. A smartly dressed chef (good grief, a chef!) takes me through the fish selection - gurnard, haddock, monkfish, sole, skate, tuna, dory, swordfish, mackerel and plaice; all fresh, all caught off Cornwall. And the shop is all bright and beautiful, not dirty and greasy-windowed. To the right is a café of scrubbed wooden tables and bench seating where you can take your box of fish and chips, stopping at the wine counter on the way for a glass of chilled white wine.

It's all very nice, but I do have to ask myself why on earth would a successful celebrity chef like Rick Stein want to open a fish and chip shop in the first place? Surely it is a betrayal of everything he holds dear?

According to Stein, it is simply something he has always wanted to do, and do properly.

"Fish and chips is just one of those things that everyone is drawn towards," he says. "This shop has given me more pleasure than anything I have done in recent times, because it is accepted right across the board, and not just by people who love food."

Doesn't he think what has happened to fish and chips in just a teensy bit disgusting?

"Most of it is crap," he says. "But I still think that if you do it properly, there is no better way of cooking fish than in batter."

In setting up the shop, Stein looked towards Yorkshire and Australia. "The best fish and chips in the world come from Yorkshire because they use pure beef dripping, and that's what we use here," he explains. As for the bright, airy feel of the shop, the display cabinet of fresh fillets and the practise of serving the fish and chips in open boxes rather than wrapped up in paper, he openly admits to be influenced by new wave Sydney chippies such as Balmoral's Bottom of the Harbour and the Palm Beach Fish Shop.

The smart monogrammed boxes, however, hide a deep, dark secret. Everything in the shop is local and fresh, except for the cod, which comes in frozen from Icelandic waters. Naturally, it is the biggest seller by far, because fish and chips in Britain means cod and chips. With the demand for cod is so high, much of it is cooked ahead and kept warm. Aaaaagh, we are back to square one again.

Choose a fresh fillet, however, and the result can be impressive. My gurnard is moist, meaty, and full of good, clear, sweet flavour. The deep-golden batter is flaky rather than crumbly, and the dry, crisp chips (cut from whole Maris Piper potatoes) actually taste of Maris and Piper.

So, there is a single fish shop in the far southwest corner of the country capable of turning out decent fish and chips. According to Stein, the Magpie Café in Whitby is another excellent purveyor of Britain's favourite fry-up. That leaves around 8,500 chippies around Britain, most of which turn out greasy, tasteless stodge.

Why? Because they can. Too many Brits don't really want good fish and chips, they want mouthfuls of soft white stuff in a suit of armour leaking over-used oil. They don't want freshness, they want cheapness. They don't want hand-cut chips that taste of potato but the limp corpses of what-once-were-chips. It's not the chippies that are the problem. It's us.

Stein's Fish & Chips, South Quay, Padstow, Cornwall. For more information, visit www.rickstein.com

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