I’ve mentioned my admiration for British nosh before and, after a hefty stint in SE Asia, nothing rises the noodlepie sap higher than the scent of cod-infused deep fried fat wafting down a chilly British street of an afternoon. However, on my recent blast through the Shetland Islands I was on the trail of something a bit special – Britain’s most northerly chippie. I’d emailed the tourism board a couple of times from Saigon to see if they knew where this great British landmark might be. I was surprised to hear that they weren’t sure. I’d kind of assumed ‘Britain’s most northerly chippie’ would be well-known. Arriving in Shetland, a helpful Czech girl at the tourist board offices by the name of Misa – yes – Czech, not Shetlandic and extremely knowledgeable about the islands – suggested three joints all in Lerwick; Fort Cafe Takeaway, the Happy Haddock and Ian’s Chip shop. I was suspicious. If you look at the map here, Lerwick is pretty far south and Unst, Fetlar and Yell look like sizeable chunks of Britain further north. Surely, they’d have a chippie a hop, skip and a ferry away up the road?
It turns out my Czech mate was spot on. The islanders further north have to steam south for their fish ‘n’ chips fix. OK – so we were down to the three locations all in Lerwick. Ian’s Chip Shop looked like it had fried its last, or it was going through rather messy renonvation work. Whatever – it was closed – which left us two options; Happy Haddock and the Fort Cafe. Unfortunately, I have the mapsense of a short-sighted homing pigeon with Alzheimer’s, and wasn’t carrying a GPS phone. So, I needed a second opinion. Ever helpful Gordon Williamson, from the Herrislea House Hotel, put me on the right track, “There’s nothing north of Lerwick. Your most northerly chippie? That’ll be the Happy Haddock.” But, did the staff at the Happy Haddock on Commercial Road know they were presiding over a potential marketing goldmine as ‘Britain’s most northerly chippie’?? Nah, never even crossed their minds.
This ‘Fish supper’, as it’s known in Scotland, will set you back £3.80. Actually, a ‘proper’ fish supper should come with a fish and a half, but I was missing the half here. There’s a small eat-in area at the Happy Haddock, which is located (handily) next to a fishmonger and The Douglas Arms boozer. The scoff is decent. The chips were fresh and hot. Can’t stand knackered old chips, refried or whatever and these were fresh out of the pan. The haddock was fresh enough, although it wasn’t exactly flipping out of the chip paper. The all important batter was slightly soft on the inside, the way it should be, and firmed to a golden crisp on the outside. All in all, a satisfying chippie chowdown at ‘Britain’s most northerly chippie’. You heard it here first (I think).
Back in town, at the foot of the old fort and a screwed up chip paper’s throwaway from the harbour front is the Fort Cafe Takeaway. Perhaps because of its more central location, and its larger and separate sit-in area, this spot was far busier than the Happy Haddock. Although this was a pieman lunch stop, the Happy Haddock was an early evening affair which could have made a difference. OK – looks wise – it’s all a bit sad, but how’s the scoff?
One of the great things about British fish ‘n’ chips is the sense of anticipation before unwrapping the salty, vinegary, fishy fried delights inside. Like Christmas, but better. (Although I’ll admit, if you got a Terry’s Chocolate Orange last year – you could argue a good case for Christmas.)
Inside we have a £3.50 haddock fish supper (with added half of fish) in a polystyrene box. Fish quality was good, if a little ‘spongey’ in the middle. The batter veered towards soggy on the inside which was troubling. It’s such a delicate art to get the crispiness on the outside and the right amount of softness on the inside. Too soggy and much of it will be inedible glop, as was the case on this visit. The chips weren’t entirely fresh, although that didn’t seem to bother the seagull who happily squarwked his satisfaction at my cast offs as I watched the ferry depart on its 7 minute scoot over the pond to Bressay. Fort cafe might be cheaper, but you’ll be a lot happier at the Happy Haddock.
I’ve mentioned this place in Oban on the west coast of Scotland before. Refurbished since pieman and noodlegirl last hogged down here, it still serves a sucker sea punch to other fish fryers in Britain. I nattered with the owner, while our haddock fried, to gleen a few facts about their trade. During the high season they’ll serve 500 customers per day and the fish is delivered twice a week from Oban based fishermen who freeze their catch at sea. This is the only chippie I have found thus far that I would (and did) travel 6,000 miles to eat at.
The revamp means fancy new boxes like those above, aswell as a framed picture on the chippie wall taken when ace chef Rick Stein popped in for a fill and a menu replete with noncey new dishes. Oh, and don’t try that web address on the box. Sadly, it doesn’t work. Shaky opening times and a late train meant we very nearly missed eating here. Talk about being anxious. We just squeezed this in straight off the train late one Sunday night.
Inside the snazzy box is £4.20 haddock & chips – the most expensive chippie on this jaunt and ‘Yes’ – it is worth it. Less greasy than all the others I sampled, the fish flakes off in chunks and the batter is done to perfection. Some of the chips did stick to the greasepaper, but half the fun’s peeling them off anyhow, and they weren’t too thick as some tend to be. Oban Fish & Chip shop fry your fish to order, so there’s none of those sad looking tepid chaps hanging around the hot plate area. It’s generally a good sign if a chippie tells you, you’ll have to wait 10 minutes for your supper. I will be back (again and again).
In Glasgow, it was a different story at the Blue Lagoon next to Central Station. An old haunt had disappeared and, pushed for time, we dropped in here. It looked kinda posh, but unlike Oban we were greeted by a few sad fried cod & haddock waiting for customers. We coughed up £3.95 for a fish supper each before finding a pew on Buchanan Street to get stuffed.
This unhappy looking haddock didn’t look hot and didn’t taste top, although the flesh flaked the way it should. After all, if you’re running a chippie, the very least you can do is fry fresh and serve piping hot, surely? Not that it was awful, it was just a bit amateur and I doubt I’ll be back.
Well, That about ‘wraps up’ this year’s British fish ‘n’ chop shop review, hope you enjoyed it. There’ll be more in 2005, if not before. I have already heard from multiple sources that the Anstruther Fry in Fife, Scotland is the new cod on the block. And when in London, I never fail to to make an appointment with the sublime Two Brothers at 297-303 Regent’s Park Road. If you do have any recommendations for your favourite Brit chippie, please let me know. I’m half of mind to use the extra blog space Typepad gives to start a fish ‘n’ chip ‘open’ blog soon. Meanwhile, get your Home cooked fish ‘n’ chips just right with a little help from the BBC.