For those of you who don’t already know, I’m from Sydney and I moved to a town in Berkshire called Maidenhead. The food culture here came as a big shock. I didn’t know that the Brits like their pub steaks served with fresh tomato and grilled mushrooms. I didn’t know that high-quality pan-Asian takeaway was a luxury I had left behind for good. I also didn’t know that there is chip shop culture that I’m still trying to figure out. Lucky for me, or incredibly unlucky depending on how you look at it, our house is very close to a fish and chip shop called Super Plaice. Resplendent in 1970s brown tiles, Super Plaice, we found out, was quite the local icon. Everyone knew about it. But then it closed down, the owner retired and the stalwart of seafood closed it’s brown roller doors for the last time. It was a sad day. We ended up having to get our fix from other, newer and much more modern fish and chipperies a few blocks away. Dazzled by their gleaming silver tiles and spotless stainless steal kitchen, we came to love the rival Oh My Cod. They love a good fish pun here.
A few months ago, after much speculation from our lounge-room window, we were excited to see that the old brown rollers were being rolled back once again. Super Plaice rose from the ashes like a fried Phoenix but this time things were a bit different. Instead of an aging patriot manning the fryer a Turkish gang took the reigns. After a little while, the old chippy got a new sign and a new menu, this time including kebabs. I don’t know how the locals took this change. I actually think most people don’t know that Super Plaice is back in action. While the tiles might still be brown and an authentic reminder of the shop’s history, the new owners are really trying to bring a little bit of continental flavour to the neighbourhood. They have a system for chips that I think I have figured out, and it involves a whole lot of conical-shaped steel buckets on the counter top. I think they use it to par-fry their chips during busy periods to speed up the final cooking process. But I’m not really sure.
Despite the new owners and the new menu, the chippy culture remains the same. Unlike milkbars back home that sell everything from salads to Mars bars, the chippies here sell only fried fare. There is usually a drinks fridge but not always. There are jars of pickled eggs and onions behind the counter, they serve up the classic battered fish (usually cod or haddock), savs, and various other favourites. The chips are fat, irregular shaped and sprinkled with salt and vinegar. I remember chips being like that back in Oz when I grew up but then milk bars got fancy and they became lost to time. I was so happy to see that the fat, squishy chips of my childhood are still being served up here in cones of paper. Depending on where you are in the UK, you can get different kinds of sauce to go with the chips, but here in Maidenhead it’s salt and vinegar. Not a shaker of chicken salt in sight!
The manners of the British folk are refreshing compared to the competitive snooze-and-lose attitude of Sydney-siders. People here wait till they’re sure that they’re not pushing in front of anyone before stepping up to the empty counter. I’ve noticed a habit of some customers who don’t like to think about what they might like before stepping up to the counter to order. Instead they just keep one eye on the menu and begin rattling off a long list of items, and just when you think they’re finished they keep going, adding dribs and drabs as it takes their fancy. But however you order, whatever you order, you don’t become an honerary Brit until you’ve welcomed a visit to the local chippy into your weekly routine.
Back home snacking on chips was just not done in my house. Who could spare the calories? Who could justify the choice when you could have your pick of any global cuisine? But here it’s different. While I don’t make it a regular habit to snack on a heap of hot chips, I certainly have indulged more here, than I ever used to. Why? I don’t know. It just feels right. It’s colder here. The choices are less. There is an inexplicable comfort to eating piping hot chips when it’s cold and grey outside. There is pleasure in searching for your perfect chip, which for me is a little bit soggy with crunchy edges. I might not be tempted by the pickled eggs yet, but I am certainly won over by those paper-wrapped parcels of steaming, chunky chips and a side of battered fish.