When you live in California a fish supper is but a vinegar-soaked dream. So when author Catriona McPherson comes back to Scotland, her trips are measured by wondrous battered haddock and pokes of chips
You can tell a lot about a person if you view them through a fish supper. When a woman in Norfolk described Sheringham to me as “a bit fish-and-chipsy” I decided I liked the sound of the place but didn’t care for her much. And I’ve been kicked under the table and told to stop scowling at people who order skate wings, salad and wine (instead of haddock, chips, peas, bread and butter – for making a chip piece – and tea). Not that I’m exacting. Not that I judge. One of my dearest friends eats her fish supper with a fork and I’ve never even mentioned it. Until now.
So when I wanted to show a fictional character with a big black question mark hanging over him, I made him a man who closed his grandad’s chippy and turned it into a bistro. The kind of man who could be left alone in a room with a warm tea-cosy and not put it on his head. The kind of man who could eat a packet of Hula-Hoops and not wear any of them on his fingers for even one bite. A wrong ’un.
Fish and chips matter to me. Now more than ever, since leaving Scotland to live in California in 2010. Don’t get me wrong: life without midges, instant coffee and drizzle is fine, but life without battered haddock is life missing one of its chief joys. I console myself with carnitas burritos and watermelon juice, but my visits home every summer have a thick wedge of chippy-pilgrimage about them. In a good year I add a new favourite to the list.
It starts in Edinburgh, city of my birth, city of my heart, city where my husband-to-be showed his colours on an early date with a sit-in at Brattisani’s. Could there be any clearer sign of a keeper? These post-Bratty days, it’s The Tailend on Leith Walk that calls me, still jet-lagged, for the first fish supper of the year. There’s just one problem with this fine establishment: it’s not by the sea. But the batter is robust enough and the packaging is sturdy enough that you can get down to Newhaven Harbour with everything still crisp and hot. Just one dodgy U-turn on Leith Walk and a spot of cheeky parking at Loch Fyne’s and you’re laughing.
And if The Tailend is shut for a breather before festival madness (as it was when I arrived this summer), then The City Restaurant and a scoot up to Dunsapie Loch isn’t too shabby. There are fewer seagulls but more childhood memories of post-Commie-Pool picnics. My mum packed apples, digestive biscuits and a flask, but sometimes – just sometimes – we stopped for chips. We’d never heard of pester power, so we went with silent yearning. And believe me, there’s no silence in the world like four wee girls on the back seat willing their dad to turn in at the chippy.
You’d think the Anstruther Fish Bar would have its own seagull problems. But I reckon those East Neuk gulls are vegetarians and they’ve heard that even the chips are fried in beef fat. I’ve never had to huddle at a table, avoiding the harbour, for fear that a bird’s going to swoop down and carry my haddock away. It could happen. When the cooking is that good, a sizeable fish fillet can hang by its batter from a gull’s claw. I went through it in St Ives once, much to the delight of everyone packed into the café seating, who knew what was coming when I took my supper outside and didn’t warn me.
This seems like a good point to break off and invite people to comment online that my favourite chippies are over-rated and/or have gone downhill and/or fish and chips are unhealthy, unsophisticated and unsustainable. By all means, yuck my yum. It’s a pretty reliable curmudgeon test for saying out loud that you like something loads of others like too. Here’s a couple more: I adore Robert Galbraith’s crime novels; I still love Strictly. Knock yourselves out, curmudgeons.
Or, try the Bervie Chipper in Inverbervie. These chips aren’t just hot; they’re nuclear. And it’s a waste of degrees because the peaceful sweep of Bervie Bay is a few minutes’ saunter away. I can’t give a gull-rating because I’ve only ever been there after nightfall – it’s too hard to leave Gardenstown when you can still see it – but I can tell you the fish is spanking fresh and the batter makes a noise like a well-wrapped brown-paper parcel if you tap it with your fingernails. Truly, passing Inverbervie in the evening without stopping would be like going past Forfar at breakfast time. (But Scotland and her many ways of encasing meat in pastry are another article entirely.)
No one passes Applecross. People stagger weeping from their cars at the bottom of the Bealach Na Bà, shaking the cramp out of their knuckles and scouring the carpark for the pillock who overtook on the blind bend and nearly killed them. So the Applecross Inn-Side Out didn’t actually have to be good to be a hit. Well, it’s not good. It’s great. It’s not only the best fish supper I’ve ever had from a van, it’s gone straight into my overall top five. They tell me the fish and chips from the pub are good too, not to mention the fish and chips at The Walled Garden, but I’m not a savage and the scallops, crab, lobster and prawns have always got in the way. So back out to the van. The fish is cooked fresh to order, the chips are a perfect selection of big fluffy ones and wee shattery ones, the tea is hot and strong. And the homemade tartar sauce is well worth the 50p extra. It would be a sin against capers to just give it to folk who weren’t going to eat it. Bread and butter’s not laid on, but the staff are a chummy lot and the Inn kitchen’s only a step.
So much for the newbie; where else could this love letter to Scottish chippies end but Largs, where Nardini’s is 82 years old, newly refurbished, and going strong? It deserves every bit of its renown. With sumptuous surroundings (including a grand piano on a dais), friendly staff whizzing around as if on castors, and fish so crisp the plates need a deep rim or the waitresses couldn’t take the corners, the only thing wrong with Nardini’s is the selection of ice-cream sundaes is so tempting it’s hard to justify ordering the large-sized portion of haddock. In other words, Nardini’s is perfection. Mind you, the fish and chips section of the new menu is worryingly hard to spot at first, amongst the chicken pastori and rum baba, but it’s there, all the way over to the right, like a plot twist, like a happy ending. Fish, chips, peas, bread and butter and tea. There’s a sentence added: “fish can also be cooked in breadcrumbs on request”. The small font, blank tone and deafening judgement make me very happy.
Catriona McPherson’s latest novel The Weight of Angels is published by Constable at £8.99, out now.
Catriona is appearing at Off The Beaten Track, an event at Bloody Scotland, at the Golden Lion Hotel, Stirling, where she’ll be discussing the rural settings of her books alongside CF Peterson and Michael Ridpath on 9 September at 12:15pm-1:15pm, £8 (£7). See www.bloodyscotland.com for tickets.