Throughout my time exploring, I had my fair share of perhaps the most quintessential British dish—fish and chips. I sampled them in London’s Borough Market and on-board a sailing ship in Bristol.
One thing is for certain. It’s not hard to find fish and chips in England. According to the Federation of Fish Friers, there are approximately 10,500 fish and chip shops in the United Kingdom—outnumbering all other fast food outlets.
History records two likely beginnings of the fish and chips craze in Britain. One recalls John Lees’ wooden hut selling fish and chips in Mossley market in industrial Lancashire around 1863 while another credits Jewish immigrant Joseph Malin with the first combined fish and chip shop in East London around 1860.
Regardless, fish and chips have fueled the British for ages. Charles Dickens wrote about the staple meal in at least two of his novels and the combo was one of the few items not rationed during World War II.
Served well, the best fish and chips are delivered piping hot and with a flourish of salt—ready for individual diners to shower them with malted vinegar or slather them in gravy or curry and dig in.
Today’s fish and chips are typically cod filets battered in a beer batter or a flour and water mix with some baking soda and/or vinegar for lightness while the chips are typically thicker chunks of potato than American French fries.
Day one in London started with a box of fish and chips from Fish! kitchen in Borough Market. Winners of the National Fish & Chip Awards, the beer-battered cod was meaty and filling and soaked up sloshes of malt vinegar perfectly. The chips were a bit limp for my liking sadly. Fish! has a takeaway location in the heart of the market offering a variety of battered white fish with traditional sides like mushy peas, pickles and gravy or curry or a sit-down restaurant serving produce sourced from other Borough Market vendors and fish and seafood chosen by their own fishmonger, Jarvis, and prepared in a variety of ways.
A few days later, I came upon another box of fish and chips aboard The Matthew of Bristol, a modern reconstruction of the ship that John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland in 1497. A sunset fish and chips cruise delivered incredible views of Bristol’s historic harbor on the River Avon and Brunel’s SS Great Britain as well as historical and sailing information from skipper Rick Wakeham. We sailed through the harbor savoring the views of picturesque million-dollar harborside homes and floating ships of every size and shape. As we moored up at The Pump House, boxes of fish and chips were delivered on deck. While the huge portions of food were lukewarm and a bit soggy, I’d certainly chalk that up to the complexities of delivering dozens of boxes of fried food to tourists on a boat. The restaurant itself has more than 600 gins in stock so I’d be willing to revisit and eat and drink in—as Bristol is a hotbed of excellent cuisine right now. Yet, the spectacular sunset views and a bottle of crisp Stowford Press cider on deck made for a perfect evening sail.
My third try at fish and chips on this visit to Europe was actually in Holland in the tiny coastal town of Marken in North Holland at a charming pub on the pier called Taverne de Visscher (fisherman’s tavern). And it was by far the best of the three. Women wearing traditional Dutch clothing served up a plate of hot and crispy cod and toothsome chips as we looked out the window at the green wooden houses on stilts that dot the land that was once an island.
In truth, the fish and chips I ate in Europe were some of my least memorable meals but it wouldn’t have been a true trip to England without making the effort to sample the national dish of the United Kingdom.