You’ve Had Your Chips

19 February 2008

Fish and Chips

The origins of Britain’s  humble but popular dish are hidden in mythology.  Both Lancashire and London lay claim to having “The First Fish and Chip shop”, in the 1860’s, but the dish of battered fish and chips was almost certainly extant well before then:  Charles Dickens mentions a 'fried fish warehouse' in Oliver Twist in 1839.  Street vendors probably sold it to hungry workers who wanted a solid, filling meal on their way back from the factory.

The railways were responsible for the rapid spread of the fish and chip shop, as fresh fish could be brought in with North Sea steam trawlers and landed in places like Aberdeen and Grimsby, then carried by train all around Britain to be sold fresh the next morning.

Fish and Chips

As the idea of “holidays” caught on in the Victorian age, people flocked to the beaches and - along with seaside rock and kiss-me-quick hats - gobbled down fish and chips.  No promenade visit would be complete without battered cod, chips, complemented by salt and tangy vinegar.

In World War Two, the Government bent over backwards to keep fish and chips off the rationing system because it feared any shortfall would be disastrous for the morale of the nation in its darkest hours.  In order to eke out supplies of fish, it was often mixed into potato patties – the origin of the frugal fishcake.

Today there are now over 8000 fish and chip shops throughout Britain, outnumbering McDonalds by eight to one.

Is the Fish and Chip shop endangered, like the most popular fish, the Cod and Haddock?  Will we have to have Tilapia and chips instead?  The WWF put cod on the endangered list in the year 2000.  Plaice, sole, haddock, hake and halibut are also threatened, as is the dogfish, or “rock salmon”  as it is known in the fish and chip trade.  The EU has tried to reduce quotas to let the overfished areas recover, but it will take a long time.  Trawlers commonly discard large numbers of juveniles and other species – but a dead fish is a dead fish, and North Sea cod stocks have plummeted. 
There is hope for the oceans as awareness of the fragility of fish stocks is rising and there is a strong impetus to fish them sustainably:  it is to no-ones benefit if there are no edible species remaining.  An important report in major scientific journal Science predicted that there would be no fish left in 2050 if we continue to devastate the seas with overfishing and global warming.

Fish and Chips

An organisation called The Marine Stewardship Council awards this blue logo to sustainably caught fish.  In supermarkets now you can have a choice of unusual fish such as New Zealand Hoki or Alaskan Pollock in batter which will substitute for cod or plaice.  Greenpeace has just launched a campaign Seafood See Life, backed by high-profile chefs, with the objective of only serving sustainable seafood in restaurants. Raymond Blanc and Tom Aikens, along with Heston Blumenthal and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are urging other restauranteurs to use only sustainable seafood on their menus. 

The good news is when Marine Reserves – essentially national parks of the sea, are created, fish stocks can recover quite quickly.  The unusually-named Boris Worm, a marine conservationist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, who led the Science study, says that inside the 44 protected areas studied, “species came back more quickly than people anticipated – in three or five or 10 years. And where this has been done we see immediate economic benefits.”

Is there anything individuals can do?

You should choose line-caught fish wherever possible and make use of Greenpeace’s red-list to avoid species that are in danger or which come from particularly destructive fisheries.  Look out for the MSC’s blue logo to identify sustainably caught fish.  Encourage vendors to source from sustainable fisheries.


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