Face-off

Karl Wells
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Fee and Chee

Most fish and chips historians will agree that the story of fish and chips began in England. And in dear old Blighty, where they have plaques for almost everything, there is even a plaque affixed to a brick wall in Oldham, Manchester that reads:

"Tommyfield, home of the first British fried chip. The first chips were fried in Oldham around 1860 from which the origins of Fish and Chip shops and the Fast Food industries can be traced."

Bruce Jones scarfes down St. John's fee and chee. - Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

Most fish and chips historians will agree that the story of fish and chips began in England. And in dear old Blighty, where they have plaques for almost everything, there is even a plaque affixed to a brick wall in Oldham, Manchester that reads:

"Tommyfield, home of the first British fried chip. The first chips were fried in Oldham around 1860 from which the origins of Fish and Chip shops and the Fast Food industries can be traced."

Essentially it's true, although the bit about being the origins of "fast food industries" might be a stretch. I'm pretty sure fish and chips, together or by themselves, was not the start of worldwide fast food commerce.

That's not to say there hasn't been a lot of fish and chips sold since the late 19th century. Today, fish and chips is popular in the United Kingdom, parts of North America (including Newfoundland,) Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

Fish and chips TV

A few weeks ago, when I was jotting down topics to cover for "One Chef One Critic" (a new television food series I'll be co-hosting for Rogers TV) fish and chips came to mind. I thought it might be fun to compare our fish and chips with the original English product - and who better to do the comparison, I thought, than an actual Manchester lad.

Well-known U.K. actor, Bruce Jones, formerly "Les Battersby" of Britain's top television soap opera, "Coronation Street," was in St. John's and I asked if he'd be kind enough to appear on "One Chef One Critic" as a fish and chips critic. His task: to determine how St. John's fish and chips stacked up against the British product.

I think I caught him when he was hungry for his favourite dish, because he quickly agreed.

My next task was to pick a local eatery where the fish and chips would be competitive. That really wasn't difficult because, as I've said before in this column, there are many very good versions of fish and chips in St. John's. For logistical reasons to do with filming a television show, I selected the restaurant at the Bally Haly Golf and Curling Club. It's not the first place most people think of for fish and chips but believe me, they know how to do it.

Up for a challenge

Bally Haly's chef Wayne McKenzie was up for the challenge of preparing Newfoundland's national fast food for the visiting Mancunian critic. I asked him to prepare a plate of regular fish and chips, as well as a deluxe fish and chips - one with dressing and gravy added. I was curious to know what our British visitor thought of our Newfoundland "extras."

In England they have an extra called mushy peas. Some people on our side of the pond think mushy peas are mashed green peas. They're wrong. Mushy peas are actually dried marrowfat peas that have been soaked overnight in a mixture of water, sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. They're then drained, rinsed and cooked on the stove in fresh water until "mushy." I've had mushy peas in England with my fish and chips and I liked the addition (although, not as much as dressing and gravy.)

With lights up and cameras rolling, the moment of truth had arrived. Jones had made only one request - that a cup of tea with milk and slices of buttered store bread be provided. On cue, uniformed Chef McKenzie placed both versions of St. John's fish and chips in front of us. Right away I caught Bruce giving the dressing and gravy a wary eye. (Someone had made him kiss a puffin's rearend the night before. He probably thought this was another Newfoundland joke.)

Avoiding the "deluxe" plate, Bruce gave a demonstration in the British style of fish and chips eating that was ballet-like in its precision. First, he took the saltshaker and gave the plate a generous dose. Then he took his knife and cut through the piece of battered fish in a straight line, prising the cut apart slightly using his fork and knife. Next came a shower of vinegar, where he made sure he got a good shaking down through the opening in the fish. Then he placed a slice of buttered bread on his left palm and piled several chips on it. He folded the slice over, making a compact chip sandwich. Eating commenced. He took a large bite of the chip sandwich, then a bite of fish, then a few chips, sips of tea, and on it went, over and over. He was eating for England!

Words can't describe

I managed to coax him into trying the dressing and gravy. The expression on his face captured by the One Chef One Critic cameras can only be appreciated by viewing the show. Words really can't adequately describe the look on his face. Suffice to say, the Mancunian food critic did not care for our beloved "extras." He did rave about our deep-fried battered fish though. In fact, he reckoned our fish was the best he'd ever eaten.

That's high praise from someone who's been eating fish and chips on and off camera for most of his life. You see Les Battersby (Bruce's alter ego) was too lazy to cook. Viewers frequently saw him eating fish and chips from brown paper on Coronation Street. In latter years, Les married the character, Cilla Brown, who worked in a "chippy" (fish and chips shop.) Then it seemed like he was eating fish and chips in practically every episode.

Karl Wells is a restaurant panellist with enRoute and judge with the Cuisine Canada/University of Guelph Culinary Book Awards. He is also co-host of the upcoming Rogers TV show "One Chef One Critic," debuting 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21. To reach him, log on to his website: www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Bally Haly Golf and Curling Club, Cuisine Canada, University of Guelph

Geographic location: England, Newfoundland, Oldham United Kingdom Manchester St. John's North America Australia South Africa New Zealand Coronation Street

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Recent comments

  • Donna
    July 02, 2010 - 13:32

    Ha ha! Someone who obviously just looks at pictures and don't bother reading the story!!

  • brian
    July 02, 2010 - 13:20

    Gee Maureen, nothing escapes you.
    Imagine how much you would have learned if you had actually read the article.

  • Maureen
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    I think he looks alot like Les batterby from Coronation Street.

  • Susan
    July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    To Maureen: The story states that he is actor Bruce Jones who played Les Battersby from Coronation Street.

  • Corrie Fan
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    Maureen, read the article and then it will all make sense. As a side note - a lot is two words, not one.
    And while I am on a correcting streak I have to point out it is Les Battersby-Brown. We mustn't forget the Brown!

  • Donna
    July 01, 2010 - 20:21

    Ha ha! Someone who obviously just looks at pictures and don't bother reading the story!!

  • brian
    July 01, 2010 - 20:03

    Gee Maureen, nothing escapes you.
    Imagine how much you would have learned if you had actually read the article.

  • Maureen
    July 01, 2010 - 19:59

    I think he looks alot like Les batterby from Coronation Street.

  • Susan
    July 01, 2010 - 19:53

    To Maureen: The story states that he is actor Bruce Jones who played Les Battersby from Coronation Street.

  • Corrie Fan
    July 01, 2010 - 19:50

    Maureen, read the article and then it will all make sense. As a side note - a lot is two words, not one.
    And while I am on a correcting streak I have to point out it is Les Battersby-Brown. We mustn't forget the Brown!