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Global Foodservice: Icon evolution

Historic chippies encourage sourcing from sustainable fisheries


May 04, 2012

There’s nothing more British than the fish-and-chip supper: paper-wrapped parcels of freshly fried fish and chips soused in vinegar and given a generous sprinkling of salt. 

This humble dish has been with the U.K. population through many troublesome times. The National Federation of Fish Fryers claims fish and chips enabled factories to keep going throughout World War I. And in World War II, the dish was seen as so essential to the British way of life that it was one of the few foods never to be rationed. 

Considering its role in society, it’s surprising that no one is quite sure how this pairing came to be, or who was first inspired to cook fish together with fried “chipped” potatoes but it’s widely agreed they have been joined for more than 150 years.

Professor John Walton of the Department of Historical and Critical Studies at the University of Central Lancashire says fried fish began in working-class London at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign (Charles Dickens wrote about fried fish warehouses in Oliver Twist in 1838), while chips appeared in Lancashire around the 1860s. 

Both regions claim to have opened the first fish-and-chip shop, referred to as a “chippy,” around this time: Jewish immigrant Joseph Malin opened his in London’s East End, while John Lees opened his in Manchester. Nevertheless, from the 1870s the phenomenon spread rapidly, especially in London and the textiles manufacturing towns of the Pennines where fish and chips became a filling and affordable alternative to the bland diets of the working-class.

“Nobody actually lived on fish and chips. But it did become almost universal in working-class Britain. By 1910 there were perhaps 25,000 fish-and-chip shops across the country, and by 1927 — when the number of shops reached its peak — there were about 35,000,” says Walton. “A middle-class trade was also developing in shopping areas and on popular routes for days out by car.”

The later idea of turning this working-class takeaway into a restaurant meal was the brainchild of Harry Ramsden, who built up his empire from a small hut in Leeds in 1928. Today, 35 chippies bear his name.

Frozen benefits 

As British society has evolved so has the fish-and-chips trade. Today the industry is far from archaic; it has undeniably embraced sustainable practices. Contrary to popular belief, most of the fish sold from the British chippy isn’t taken from pressured North Sea stocks; around 95 percent of the cod and much of the haddock used by chippies is caught in the Arctic waters of the Barents Sea and Iceland, where stringent measures have ensured sustainable management of stocks.

A large proportion of this fish is frozen at sea (FAS) by factory trawlers that catch, process and quick-freeze fish within a few hours of capture — a method that ensures the nutrients and taste are all retained without compromising on quality. 

“By filleting and freezing at sea, we can deliver the high quality that the U.K. market demands,” says Atle Vartdal, operations manager with Norwegian company Vartdal, which owns the factory trawler Ramoen that mainly fishes in the Barents Sea.

There’s an abundance of North Atlantic cod in the Barents Sea, says Vartdal, while the haddock biomass now has the largest spawning stock on record. In line with these healthy stocks, the cod quota shared by Norway and Russia in these waters is 751,000 metric tons this year, an increase of 8 percent over 2011. The haddock quota for 2012 was set at 318,000 metric tons, an increase of 5 percent.

The benefits of FAS fish are not lost on chip-shop owners. Nine of the 10 independent fish-and-chip takeaway finalists in the Seafish-organized National Fish & Chip Awards 2012 source FAS fish. Sourcing responsibly caught fish that are of a consistently high standard is of paramount importance to the discerning chippy, says Alastair Horabin, owner of Seniors, named Britain’s Best Fish and Chip Shop for 2012. 

Another plus for FAS is there’s minimal shrink as the shop staff need only to defrost fish when needed, says Horabin. Seniors has been using FAS cod and haddock for 12 years despite his father being a former fresh fish merchant. 

“It started out as a quality issue. We tried fresh fish and the customers didn’t like it. It was wet and it collapsed in the cabinet. We found FAS to be a better product — it’s far easier to work with. 

“Sustainability started out as a bonus but as it has become a much bigger issue, it has added value to our fish. We have worked hard on our procurement policy to make sure that we only buy 100 percent sustainable fish. But why wouldn’t you use sustainable fish?” asks Horabin.

Local education 

The only finalist in this year’s chip shop awards not to use FAS fish has a very different sustainable sourcing policy inspired by the business’ close proximity to the busy fishing industry in northeast Scotland.

“We only buy fresh, local, sustainable, seasonal fish. We have a back-up of our own haddock that has been frozen down in case of an emergency but we’ve never had to touch it,” says The Bay Fish and Chips owner Calum Richardson.

The Bay was the first U.K. fish and chip shop to gain Marine Stewardship Council  chain of custody certification for Scottish North Sea haddock. Everything else it sells appears on the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide. 

Richardson spends a lot of time telling his customers which fish to eat and which to avoid, and he has been educating school children through the MSC’s Fish & Kids campaign for a number of years. 

“We take some fish into the schools and let the children handle it, but I don’t tell them to eat fish and chips; I tell them to eat fish any way that they can. It’s all about raising the awareness,” he says.

The Aberdeen shop’s focus on sustainability hasn’t gone unnoticed. This year it won the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s (SRA) Special Award, scoring 100 percent in the sustainable seafood section of the SRA Star Rating survey. 

Launched in 2010, the SRA helps member restaurants source food more sustainably, manage resources more efficiently and work more closely with their community.

“We’re a fish-and-chip shop and what we are doing is sustainable. But the SRA has opened up our eyes to all manner of things, which can have an adverse effect like the waste going out or the energy being used,” says Richardson.

Prior to the award, The Bay was the only chip shop and the only Scottish company in the SRA. Richardson says the experience of having his whole business “assessed as a package” for sustainability rather than being judged just according to seafood criteria was “extremely worthwhile” because it gave a greater perspective of the effectiveness of its operational policies.

“I believe it’s quite easy to have tunnel vision when you’re only looking at fish,” he says.

Looking ahead 

Meanwhile, the title of Best Fish & Chip Shop in Britain, given to Seniors in January, has also had a positive effect on the business. Sales are currently up 10 percent year-on-year and Horabin is confident that the company, which comprises three shops, is moving in the right direction. 

Putting their recent accolades aside, both men are confident the country’s fish-and-chip industry will continue to thrive in the future, but both believe it’s important that it moves forward. 

“The industry needs to stay active and innovate. You can’t just open a shop door and expect people to walk in. You’ve got to look at issues like sustainability and you’ve got to provide a menu choice that is competitive,” says Horabin.

“With more than 10,000 different shop owners in this country, everyone has got their own opinion and identity. Seniors, though, will have a three-pronged focus for the coming 12 months: sustainability, quality and most importantly, customer service. 

“We’ve all got to create an experience for our customers and make them feel special. If you go to McDonald’s to buy a coffee and a hamburger the staff make you feel welcome; they make eye contact; they thank you. That’s where fish and chips must be.”

Contributing Editor Jason Holland lives in London 

 May 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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