I HAVE eaten my fair share of fish and chips. But until last week, I’d never pictured myself working in a chipper, surrounded by bubbling vats of hot oil and learning how to make battered fish.
Nor did I imagine there was much of an art to fish and chip making. Now that I’ve spent an afternoon working at Allegro Handmade Foods in Killarney and spoken to people who work in some of the best-known fish and chip shops in Ireland, I realise how wrong I was.
There’s a whole lot more to it, and with bad weather in recent years having led to the doubling in the cost of potatoes, along with the ever-increasing price of fresh fish, running a successful fish and chip business has become an even more difficult task.
The price of potatoes soared by 187% in the year to the end of January, according to recent data from the Central Statistics Office. But prices are set to soar again, as poor weather will mean a miserable domestic crop again this year.
Robert Taddei of Allegro Handmade Foods in Killarney is a member of the Irish Traditional Italian Chippers Association (ITICA) which is celebrating its fourth annual National Fish and Chips Day today. To mark the occasion, the 200 fish and chip shops affiliated with ITICA are offering their customers fish and chips for half price.
Taddei is typical of many of the ITICA members, in that he learned his craft from the true originals — the Italians who brought the tradition of fish and chips to Ireland 128 years ago. In his case, it was his parents Alfonzo and Angelina.
“They came to Ireland after the war,” he says. “They were from a poor part of Italy and had a cousin in Dublin who told them to come. They didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for, but soon after they arrived, they opened a fish and chip shop.”
They weren’t the only Italians to do so. Although fish and chips might seem like an invention from Ireland or Britain, it was the Italians who opened the first chippers in both countries and we’ve been queuing up for their fish and chips ever since.
So, what’s the secret? It all lies in the quality of the ingredients. Taddei uses fresh Atlantic cod which he coats in a simple batter made from flour and water. There’s a knack involved in coating it, a fluid swiping motion from one side to the other, and it takes me a few tries before I get it down pat.
The fish is then dropped into a vat of rapeseed oil, which has been heated to 170C. That’s a high temperature and, as someone who’s a novice deep-fat-fryer, I’m terrified of being splattered. But once I’m careful, this doesn’t seem to be too much of a hazard.
While the fish is frying, I move on to the chips. Taddei uses maris piper potatoes, which are freshly cut every day and also cooked in rapeseed oil. The chips are much easier to cook. All I have to do is scoop up some chopped potatoes into a basket, lower the basket into the oil and then wait for everything to cook.
My first batch of fish and chips was delivered to a German tourist who seemed to enjoy them. Not trusting his opinion entirely, I decided to taste test my second batch myself.
Swish-swish in the batter and then a careful lowering of the fish into the oil. Scoop up the chips and lower the basket into the boiling bubbles. Finally, I arrange my creation on a plate, sprinkle with salt and make sure I’ve got some ketchup and tartare sauce.
My verdict? Crispy batter giving way to delicate flaky white fish and deliciously salted chips — I can see why the Italians found it to be a recipe for success.
Not everyone follows Robert’s methods for making fish and chips. Other shops have different recipes and techniques. What are their top tips?
Luigi Orlandi of Luigi’s Traditional Fish and Chips in Limerick maintains it’s all in the lard he uses instead of oil when frying. “I’ve had my fish and chip shop for 46 years now and lard heats better than oil,” he says. “It doesn’t burn and it gives lots more flavour too.”
At KC’s of Douglas in Cork, it’s all about fresh ingredients. They use only locally-caught cod or haddock coated in a simple batter of flour, water and salt.
“If the fish is good and fresh, you don’t need any fancy flavours,” says Zac Crawford of KC’s. “You can’t beat fresh ingredients.”
At Lennox’s Fish and Chips on the Bandon Road in Cork, things are done slightly differently again. They buy their fresh cod and haddock every morning and use Odlum’s flour and the coldest water in their batter. “There are no spices and no magic,” says manager Niall Punch. “It’s all about the batter being as cold as possible.”
Finally, Quinlan’s Fish and Chips of Tralee and Killarney use a mixture of rapeseed and palm oil to fry their fish at 225C. Like many other chippers, their potato of choice is maris piper.
While I don’t think I’ll be giving up my day job to open a fish and chip shop any time soon, having spent some time learning how to do it right, I’ll appreciate my next fish and chips a whole lot more.
* For a full list of chippers participating in the ‘half-price’ offer today, see the chipper directory at www.itica.ie
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