So I’m Beer Writer of the Year, and now Christmas is out of the way this has started to bring in a few invites that I wasn’t getting this time last year. Yesterday saw me joining the nice chaps from Marston’s at the 22nd Annual Fish and Chip Shop of the Year Competition, described by the man who introduced proceedings – with a straight face – as the “Oscars of the frying industry” (fellow beer scribe Nigel Huddlestone was also there). This was a particularly special year for the awards, because 2010 is the 150th birthday of fish and chips, with the general consensus being that the first chippie opened in 1860. As IPA – in its Burtonised incarnation – is almost 190 years old, Old Empire was the official beer of the event. I love fish and chips. The aroma of malt vinegar evaporating off chips is second only to the bouquet of hoppy IPA in terms of olfactory delight. My dad actually used to own a chip shop, and while my mum worked in it, we never actually ran it – dad just rented it out to Greasy Graham, a massive Barry Sheen fan who had posters of motorbikes around the chippie, always seemed to wrap my chips in page three of The Sun, and made the best proper fishcakes (two slabs of potato sandwiching fish off-cuts, battered and deep-fried) in the entire world. In all these respects, he had a profound influence on an 8-year-old future beer writer. Apart from the stuff about bikes. Fish and chips have a dirty, decadent, delicious shiny-fingered guilt that rivals any junk food you can think of. And yet – it says here – as a meal it contains less salt, a third less calories and over 40 per cent less fat than other takeaways. Truly, this is the food of the gods. So it was a profound honour to be at the Frying Oscars, even if it spelled disaster for the January detox – or so I thought. I missed the champagne reception, where beer-battered goujons of fish and prawns were matched with Old Empire, and discussions were had about future plans to explore the merits of different types of beer batter and different matches of IPA with battered fish. I didn’t mean to, but by doing so I kind of missed the bit that made it relevant to this blog. But I thought you’d like to hear about the rest anyway. Into lunch then, and first, a profound shock. What kind of meal do you think they would serve at the Annual Fish and Chip Awards, in the year of the fish and chip shop’s 150th anniversary? Go on, have a guess. Yes, that’s right: scallops wrapped in pancetta, followed by pan-fried cod fillet with a red pesto sauce, served on a bed of asparagus with some potatoes and carrots. It was like going to a beer festival and being told they only served wine. Christ, this was actually detox-friendly! Shaken, confused, traumatised, I sat down to hear what everyone had to say. The main sponsor of the awards was Seafish – “the authority on seafood”. Their chairman Charles Howeson welcomed us all and told us that despite the recession chippies were having a good year. He clearly had a chip on his shoulder about the health lobby (God, I’m so sorry about that one) but assured us that in 2009 sales of fish and chips were up 15%. He then handed over to celebrity chef Aldo Zilli, who told us that the English had nicked fish and chips from Italy, before going on to gently insult most of the regional awards winners and pull funny faces behind the backs of the sponsor’s representatives who presented the awards. My attention began to wander and I scrutinized the programme. I was disappointed to see that in 22 years, only once has the Fish and Chip Shop of the Year been awarded to an establishment with a crap pun in the name: ‘Our Plaice’ in West Hagley, West Midlands in 2004, and it’s not even that good. No ‘In Cod we Trust’. No ‘A Fish called Rhondda’. No ‘A Salt and Battered’. If these kinds of plaices – sorry, places – don’t make good enough fish and chips, it’s high time there was a new category that’s just about the best name. Further on in the programme, I was less enchanted by some of the sponsors, and their descriptions of what they do. Blakemans describes itself as ‘The Supreme Sausage’, and goes on to claim it is “one of Europe’s leading manufacturers of sausage and meat products.” Not “sausages and meat”. But “sausage and meat products.” Amazing how one word can change the appetite appeal so much. Duncrue Food Processors – strapline, “Irish beef dripping” – is a company that makes – you guessed it – beef dripping from ‘caul, kidney and body fat from E.C. and Department of Agriculture approved plants’, and according to their website they recently invested in a deodourising plant. There are some things about fish and chips we just don’t need to know I guess, but it’s fascinating to get a brief, deeper glimpse into any industry you don’t normally have that much to do with. There were 10,000 entries for the ‘Favourite Frier’ category (Sponsored by Sun Talk, the online Currant Bun radio station) and a hundred of Britain’s 10,500 chippies were shortlisted for the overall prize of Britain’s best fish and chip shop 2009. The eventual winner was The Atlantic Fast Food chippy in Coatbridge, Glasgow, which had entered for the first time. Congratulations to them. It’s nice to see that everyone else takes what they do as seriously as we beer writers, and it was pleasantly strange to be able to sit through an awards ceremony with a complete absence of anxiety, jealousy and self-doubt. I’m sure that by the time December 2010 is approaching, I’ll be willing to trade my place as Chairman of the Beer Writing Awards this year for a chance to be one of the people who helps get that shortlist of 100 chippies down to one.
The best advert in the world, ever. I’m serious.