Fish ‘n’ chips is the original British take-away meal, and has been part of British life for well over 100 years.
Every town in Britain had its fish ‘n’ chip shops. No British town is more than 150 km. from a sea port, and most are much closer; once railways were built in the nineteenth century, fresh sea fish could easily be bought in all British towns. Cheaper than meat, sea fish became a popular source of protein ; by 1870, “fish and chip shops” were springing up all over the country. For a hundred years, they were the classic popular restaurant, British style.
However, will it survive much longer? Maybe only as a luxury for people who can afford it.
Years before the Big Mac was invented, the UK had its own national form of fast food.
“When I was a young man, it was the sort of thing you’d have once or twice a week,” remembers 82-year old Arthur Mowbrey. “Sixty years ago, you’d get a full size portion of cod and chips for sixpence. It was cheap, and good.”
Fish ‘n’ chips was nourishing too. It was a proper meal, that you could eat in the street on your way home from work, or during the lunch-break. Wrapped in newspaper, it would keep warm to the last chip, even on the coldest days of the year.
In the last 25 years, things have changed.
“It’s not so popular with young people these days,” says Lizzie, a teenager. “Most of the time, if young people want to eat out, they’ll go to a Burger King or something like that, or a Chinese take-away. Fish ‘n’ chips is a bit old-fashioned really, I suppose. But there are still cheap chip shops around. I had fish ‘n’ chips about three weeks ago. We sometimes have it at home, and we go and get it from the chip shop. It saves cooking!”
Thousands of chip shops, however, have closed in the last quarter of a century. Some have been turned into Chinese or Indian take-aways, others have just closed. They have survived best in seaside towns, where the fish is really fresh, and people visit them more as a tradition than for any other reason.
Yet nothing, perhaps, can save the classic fish ‘n’ chip shop from extinction. Fish ‘n’ chips wrapped in newspaper is already just a memory of the past. British and European hygiene rules no longer allow food to be wrapped in old papers, so today’s carry-out chip shops use new paper or styrofoam cartons. Of course, you can still eat fish and chips with your fingers if you want, but there are now plastic throw-away forks for those who don’t want to get greasy fingers!
Yet in spite of these changes, the classic fish ‘n’ chip shop could disappear from British streets in a few years’ time, for a completely different reason; lack of fish.
For over twenty years, European agriculture ministers have been trying to solve the fish problem, but with little success. As a result of modern industrial fishing, some types of fish are facing extinction in the North Sea and Atlantic. “Overfishing in the North Sea has reached crisis levels,” say Greenpeace. Quotas have been introduced, but each time there are new restrictions, fishermen in Britain, France, Spain and other countries protest, because jobs are lost.
Sadly, this is inevitable; and unless strict quotas are applied, thousands of European fishermen could lose their jobs, as there will be few fish left to catch (at least, few of the kinds of fish that people want to eat). One way or the other, sea fish will become rarer, and therefore more expensive.
The gradual disappearance of the traditional British fish ‘n’ chips shop is therefore bound to continue. Fish and chips, however, will survive as a speciality in pubs and restaurants, and in new up-market fish restaurants. Comfortable, more expensive fish restaurants, with chairs and tables, have existed for a long time of course, alongside stand-up take-away fish ‘n’ chip shops. In the years to come, they may be the only type of fish ‘n’ chip restaurant to survive.