I’ve concluded that England is in the midst of a national crisis. I’m not talking about affordable housing, pot holes, or the cost of getting a plumber at the weekend. I’m talking about the desperate quality of the chips that so many establishments serve.
Our chip shops should be wonderful places we can proudly direct tourists to, promising them a meal as good as any weiner schnitzel, moules fritte, or sautéed reindeer. You should be able to find them in every city, town and village in the land.
Instead, we give a look of embarrassment when a visitor asks where can they find a chip shop. I’ve actually been thinking about rounding up some students and organising one of those demonstrations with whistles, banners, and all that kind of thing, and maybe, for good measure, some inflatable haddock and lobsters.
I’ve spent over half of my life in search of the perfect chips, but, with a few exceptions, outstanding chip shops in England are as rare as finding cage fighting on the list of recreational activities in an old people’s home. What you are likely to be served are pale, often hard, chips, usually flecked with green or black, and a fish in a batter that is either soggy or has the texture of a strip of wallpaper.
Even those places with coloured stickers on the door informing you that Trip Advisor thinks they are excellent (Trip Advisor seems to think everywhere is excellent), or that they have won some sort of award for their dishes are no better. I don’t know who the judges of these awards are but they know as much about chips as I know about electrostatics.
So what should a perfect plate chips look like? That’s easy. They should have a golden colour, be crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.
Nowadays you’re more likely to get a plate of decent chips in a pub or a restaurant rather than at a chip shop. I can think of several occasions when I’ve been served something approaching perfection – at a pub on Portobello Road, at another in Bakewell, and in a restaurant in Crystal Place. Yet I have to report that the quality in pubs and restaurants can vary as much as the weather on a Spring day.
The seaside should be the ideal place to enjoy chips. All that salty air, the big blue sky, and the shimmering sea with a small boat gliding across it. You can’t think of an English seaside town without thinking of the smell of malt vinegar. Sadly, the situation in most seaside towns has been dire for decades. Last year, I visited Hastings, which – if you ignore the rather shabby road that greets you when you emerge from the station and all the charity shops you pass – is a charming town, with qaint pubs that you could imagine spending all day in, narrow streets with timbered buildings, inviting shops, and even a museum to celebrate fishermen. We opted to eat in a pleasant looking restaurant just yards from the sea, figuring that in a town which is home to the country’s largest beach-launched fishing fleet, we would be guaranteed a superb plate of fish and chips. While the cod was succulent, the chips were inedible. I came away, shaking my head in disbelief and vowing to write a stiff email to the British Potato Council.
It has taken me a while to discover the best method of cooking chips. At one time, I used to simply drop the chips in hot oil, but they always turned out too hard. Then I tried blanching them in boiling water or cold water before frying. The result was much the same. I tried Heston Blumenthal’s triple cooked method, but I felt this was unnecessarily laborious. But that’s Heston Blumenthal from you. Why make a task simple when you can make it complicated?
The perfect method was revealed to me by a chef in one of the BBC’s Good Food videos. Once you have peeled the potatoes, making sure to remove any green or black bits, and washed them in cold water to get rid of the starch, you pat them dry with paper kitchen towels. You then place a thermometer in the pan and wait for it to reach 130 degrees. You then fry the chips at 130 degrees for seven minutes, remove them from the pan and put them in the fridge for an hour or so, and then return them to the pan for another seven minutes, this time ramping up the heat to 180 degrees. It works every time. You just need to remember not to cut the potatoes too thick, as they will take longer to cook, and not to crowd the pan with too many chips, as this reduces the temperature.
So which potatoes are best to make chips? I like Maris Piper and King Edward’s, but my favourite is the slightly creamy Vivaldi, which I’ve only found in Sainsbury’. I do possess one of those compact deep fat fryers, but I stopped using it because you had to fill it with two litres of oil. Instead I use a saucepan, which only requires a litre of oil.
James Martin says chips should be fried in beef dripping. He might well be right. However, vegetable oil is easier to get hold of, and I’ve had no complaints about its results.