London's best chips
Time Out's Rachel Halliburton explains why nothing divides Londoners like the humble chip, while Jenni Muir goes in search of London‘s 50 best specimens
Come fry with me: a fresh portion of sizzlingly satisfying chips
It’s a moment of pure scripting genius. In the first episode of Russell T Davies’ ‘Dr Who’, Rose and the Doctor have fought off killer shop-dummies and experienced their first glimmer of inter-galactic sexual attraction. So what next? ‘I want chips,’ declares Billie Piper’s Rose. Christopher Ecclestone’s Doctor smiles. ‘Me too.’ In that moment they are bonded: the eccentric alien and the working-class heroine – born planets apart, but united in craving the humble fried potato.
Would any other food but the chip have worked so well at this point? The chip – so desirable, and yet so simple – a mixture of grease, salt and carbohydrate that somehow manages to appeal to everyone from kids who’d be hard-pressed to name a vegetable to world leaders like Bill Clinton in his pre-heart-bypass days. Who hasn’t had that moment when suddenly you realise you’d sell your soul just for the tang of salt on your lips, followed by the comforting squish of potato in your mouth? What other food symbolises normality, but also prompts the kind of compulsive consumption that might be better associated with class-A drugs?
Yet although in Russell T Davies’ fictional London (the city in which the show is filmed, Cardiff, has an entire road – Caroline Street – dedicated to chips) the chip credibly builds bridges across the universe, in the real-life capital it equally has the power to divide. Anyone who hoped (gullibly) that the class system was dead will instantly see it resurface when they consider the different forms in which this city’s chips can be consumed. Two weeks ago, the Guardian wrote about how the chippy was getting posher, but that didn’t begin to skewer the complexity of the situation. Consider this: are you more likely to snaffle your chips from a polystyrene box or to wash them down with a choice vintage at a gastropub? Is your idea of artery-clogging heaven a plump specimen fried in goose-fat by a Frenchman, or a clutch of slim golden beauties from a high-street burger-chain? Do you prefer fries oozing from a butty, or served at a reception in a miniature cone of Financial Times newspaper? Could you have fond fantasies about curly chips, or are you a purist who thinks that the only true chips come straight up and down in newspaper, soused with vinegar. The chip divides into different classes like no other food. Throughout the capital you can find the proudly working-class variety (such as those in the excellent E Pellicci in the East End), the middle-class chip (try the ones at the Junction Tavern on Fortess Road), and the aristocratic chip (to be found in such establishments as Le Caprice for £3.75). Combined with condiments – brown sauce or vinegar? Mayonnaise or ketchup? – it reveals divisions as deep as any others to be found between those who wear fake Burberry, those who aspire to afford Burberry, and people who, quite simply, darling, prefer Barbour.
Is ketchup the perfect condiment?
The thorny considerations of class aside, there’s also the issue of your relationship with the chip. Maybe you’re the kind of person who sees it as the one-night stand of foods: at its most appealing when you’re drunk – a tryst built on instant gratification, and certain not to benefit your long-term future. Maybe you’re trying to be thin, and perceive the world in terms of the snackers and the snack-nots: so that the chip, for you, is a sin spat straight from the bowels of Beelzebub. Maybe you’re one of those children whose parents would rather use Jamie Oliver as a human dartboard than follow any of his dietary advice, and the chip for you is a daily treat, even if you’re not quite sure what it’s made from.
(Remember that survey in 2005 by the British Heart Foundation, which showed that a shocking one in three of eight- to 14-year-olds had no idea that the chip had anything to do with the potato?) And then, of course, there’s that section of the population (partly overlapping with the previous category) which needs to realise that – like fire and money – the chip is better as a servant than a master: and that to acknowledge this might be a first step in reducing UK adult obesity rates which last October were revealed to be the highest in Europe and rising.
E Pellicci: Bethnal Green's vital source of egg and chips
It’s perhaps not surprising that the chip has such an ability to divide people. Its ‘mother vegetable’, the potato, also caused controversy when it first arrived in Europe from Central and South America. Like most outsiders, it was viewed with suspicion, which in its turn spawned hostile mythologies. From the early seventeenth century through to 1780, the French – never the fastest at accepting foreign innovation – banned it from their tables on the grounds that it was supposed to cause leprosy. Working on a more scientific basis, others reasoned that because it came from the same family as deadly nightshade, it was poisonous. Scottish Presbyterians were worried by its ungodliness, refusing to eat it because it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. In Russia, under Tsar Nicholas I, the peasants went as far as believing that potatoes were ‘Devil’s apples’, asserting that if planted, they would lead to fields becoming barren.
The potato’s transformation into the chip came towards the end of various campaigns to popularise it in mainland Europe – the most ebullient one being fought by Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. After being force-fed potatoes while he was a prisoner of war in Germany, the eighteenth-century Frenchman rather masochistically developed a taste for them, and roped-in Louis XVI as part of his mission to popularise it. His stroke of genius was not to invent the chip, but, er, the potato flower, which Marie Antoinette wore as a corsage. The potato’s consequent popularity endured well beyond her execution, and in the late eighteenth century – in one of those cataclysmic, yet unrecorded moments in history, rather like the invention of the wheel – someone dropped a sliver of potato into boiling oil.
Spuds you like
Out of the frying oil and into the polemical fire, the chip was divisive from the start. The debate still rages today as to whether it was invented in France or Belgium. (If the latter is true, then it makes the USA’s ‘Freedom Fries’ protest look even more ridiculous than it was.) Still, one thing is undeniable – the way it has conquered the British palate. One in four of all potatoes consumed in Britain is served up as chips, and more than 277 million portions of chips are sold in fish and chip shops each year.
In our multicultural city, the chip will continue to develop different categories as different communities appropriate it. It’s no surprise that both the halal chip and the kosher chip have also found their place in the capital. Maybe, when you think about it, the chip is the truest symbol of London’s diversity – and there’ll be a day when a large chip-shaped monument will be put up to dominate the London skyline along with the Eye and the Gherkin. Though whether an oversized vinegar bottle or a sculptural sachet of brown sauce should be erected next to it could provoke centuries of debate.