The fish supper is taking a battering due to rising prices. But Britain’s national dish has survived worse. By Etan Smallman
[Click on image below to view full-size page]
A Britain without fish and chips may be as unthinkable as a Tower of London without the ravens. But the guardians of the UK’s national dish are warning that a “perfect storm” of post-pandemic inflationary rises mean that it is not just their fillets that are taking a battering – and that was before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine has pushed up the cost of potatoes (fertiliser has more than trebled in price since June 2020), oil (Ukraine and Russia produce about 60 per cent of the world’s sunflower seeds), batter (pre-war, Ukraine, the “bread basket of Europe”, supplied 12 per cent of global wheat) and fish (the estimated 40 per cent of fillets used in fish and chip shops that come from Russia are now subject to a 35 per cent tariff hike by the UK government, while the US’s total ban is pushing up prices of cod from elsewhere).
And to add insult to injury, after a reduction in VAT for hospitality in response to Covid, the tax is to return to 20 per cent on 1 April.
“It’s a crisis on top of a crisis,” says Andrew Crook, president of the National Federation of Fish Friers, who runs Skippers of Euxton in Chorley, Lancashire, and says the price he pays for fish is going up 10 per cent a week.
Crook fears a third of Britain’s fish and chip shops could go under in what he says is the biggest threat to the industry in its 160-year history. “There’s never been a lot of profit in each meal,” he explains. “We’re running at a tight margin, but we sell a lot of them. You sell enough, you make a living.”
Because fish and chips is seen as a traditionally working-class dish – it is one of our most price-sensitive meals.
Crook says he was once very reluctant to go past the £5 barrier. Now customers “tell me it’s too expensive when it’s £8 – but it’s still cheaper than a pizza”.
In Bedford, Anish Khinda (inset) only this month pivoted his awardwinning seven-year-old fish and chip bar away from seafood and potatoes. The 32-year-old said that with the latest spike in the cost of fish, he would have had to increase his regular cod from £6.20 to more than £10. Instead, he has rebranded from Shortstown Food Bar to Roo’s Burgers and Wings – products that do not tend to fluctuate as much in price. And without having to run the deep-fat fryers, he has also knocked a large chunk off his gas bill.
“We decided to get ahead of the curve and change the food menu just to keep it viable,” he says. “We’re in quite a socially deprived area and we would have scared a lot of customers off.”
But Khinda is disheartened. “Fish and chips is my passion. I’ve done it since the age of 14 – my father had a shop which I was brought up in. To see so many facing closure is devastating.”
It is believed the first fish and chip shop was opened in London in 1860 by Joseph Malin, who sold “fish fried in the Jewish fashion”. The chips are probably French in origin, but the combination is celebrated as a British triumph.
There are estimated to be between 8,000 and 10,000, mostly independent, shops in Britain, down from a high of 25,000 in the early 20th century.
According to pollsters YouGov, the dish is the nation’s most popular, disliked by only 6 per cent. Its appeal transcends politics – favoured by almost identical proportions of Leavers and Remainers – but there is a generational divide, with its 92 per cent approval rating among baby boomers, falling to 80 per cent among millennials.
The dish has survived crises in the past. During the Second World War, ministers decided its morale-boosting properties meant it should be one of the few foods not rationed, and Crook’s predecessor had weekly meetings with the Government to make sure that shops had sufficient supplies to produce what Winston Churchill described as our “good companions”.
In the 50s and 60s, the arrival of Indian and Chinese takeaways gave customers a new level of choice that triggered a gradual but long-term decline. The arrival of the fast-food chains applied extra pressure; Crook remembers McDonald’s opening the same week as his mum launched her first shop in Preston, in 1984.
The drought of 1976 put potatoes up to £20 a sack, with some chippies deciding to close for weeks. Finally, the Covid pandemic meant servings dropped from 230 million in 2019 to 174 million in 2021.
But Professor Panikos Panayi, of De Montford University, Leicester, and author of Fish and Chips: A History, tells i: “The thing I’m struck by is the resilience of the fish and chip shop. I think it will survive this crisis just as it survived others.” He puts its endurance down to the fact that the meal “is real food, and you know exactly what’s in it”.
Crook suggests that if we want a cheaper option, we should consider broadening our tastes, venturing beyond the time-honoured cod and haddock.
“It’s very difficult to get consumers off these species,” he says. “I do shell-on king prawns sometimes, langoustines I buy from Scotland. I can give people taste tests and they say, ‘Ooh, that’s lovely, can I have cod and chips?’, because that’s what they wanted when they were coming through the door.”
A fish supper may be as British as Marmite and queuing, but in fact most of what we catch in our own waters is exported. One answer to the looming crisis may lie in embracing “unfashionable” varieties of fish – accompanied by cries of “gurnard and chips, please!” echoing from your local chippie counter.