Sunday, 7 April 2013

Fish and chips

After a shopping trip at a cheap clothes stores in Picadilly Circus, we headed off in the bitter cold of March towards Greenwich where I promised the children a trip to London's Planetarium*. As we came out of the  Cutty Sark station, we caught sight of the splendid ship. I would have liked to get closer to it, but the weather was dismal: grey sky, with dense fog hindering visibility. It felt more appropriate to be indoors, preferably somewhere warm and cosy. The cold makes you feel hungry.

"Can we have fish and chips, Mum?" my daughter asked me. She had spotted the big sign hanging on what looked like a grand old pub across from the station. The family was finally going to be given a chance to try fish and chips, which they had heard a lot about, branded as the national dish of Britain. 
Secretly I was very pleased that my daughter had noticed the sign. I have always wanted to introduce my family to fish and chips, but Crete is not the right place for it. Such a meal is available in other parts of Greece that were subjected to British influence (eg Kerkira/Corfu, where ginger beer is produced and cricket is played), and some tourist areas frequented by the British. Even though Hania is a popular summer resort for cheap package tourists, it's only very recently that fish and chips has made an appearance in the area, although we haven't yet had the opportunity to try it. And since it's easy to cook it at home, we will probably stick to cooking it there.

I had grown up with fish and chips; throughout my teenage years and then a bit, I worked alongside my parents in their fish and chip shop in Wellington. My family knew that my parents - the children's grandparents - operated their own chippie, but they really have no idea what this means exactly, and in our times, they will not be able to find out. Things have changed over the years in this sector to the extent that you can't easily buy yourself a greasy old-fashioned fish and chip meal, mainly due to health and lifestyle changes. No one would dare use newspaper nowadays to wrap food in and the demand for greater transparency in the food chain has meant that most fish and chip shops now try to name the source of origin of their products. Back in my days, no one questioned such things. Fish and chips was a once-a-week ritual for most families in New Zealand, the standard fast food. It was never regarded as junk food in those days; I even remember regular orders of fish and chips being sent to my primary school at lunchtime.  
The weather was not really conducive to strolling along the streets before choosing where to have our fish and chips. I was happy to take the first place we came across. A menu was pasted on the window of the pub - the prices looked quite reasonable, the food sounded familiar, and the indoor atmosphere as viewed through the window looked quiet and quaint. The Spanish Galleon is housed in a beautiful old well-maintained building, giving it an inviting appeal, although there were the usual signs of modernisation: the bar, the furniture, the standardised menu all point to some kind of gourmet upgrade. It's really hard to find the old-fashioned pubs and chippies of the past, but the pub provided a good combination of the two. Maybe it wasn't quite the traditional pub meal that I was really looking for, the kind that we read about in stories, but that's probably because I was looking for the past in the present time. We are too well read and expect too much from modern life, more than it can give us.  
We chose a range of dishes on the menu: fish and chips, sausages, minced beef pie and 'doorstep cut' club sandwiches. Most of the meals came with a serving of mushy peas, whose comforting taste was an unknown quantity to all of us; I explained this delicacy as the British idea of a bean dish (I admit that my husband does have a point when he says that fasolada is superior). I cook battered white fish in our Cretan home, but only in olive oil and the fish is more often desalinated salted cod. British-style fish and chips is a completely different experience. This meal took me back to my New Zealand days, as I remembered my father filleting large white fish, removing the bones, then cutting up the fish into even-sized fillets, stirring up the batter, flouring and dipping each piece into it before dropping it into a boiling vat filled with beef dripping. We even sold tartare sauce in sachets. My son was surprised that the sausages were battered - I wasn't surprised at all, since that is how we often cooked them by request for our customers. He was also surprised that the sandwich contained bread slices cut from a loaf - that's the effect of the gastronomification of the food business all over the world (pre-sliced bread is inappropriate in the gourmet trade).

I still can't get used to room-temperature English beer; it may have been close to freezing outdoors, but the room was warm and the food was comforting, so the beer could have been colder!

This meal cost us a very reasonable 51 pounds, including fizzy drinks for the kids and beers on tap for the adults. As we were there at lunch time, we got to see the range of customers that the pub attracts: shoppers who wanted a warm bite, locals who were having their lunchtime tipple, working people conducting meetings over lunch, and a few tourists like ourselves. During the peak hour, the dining area filled to capacity; as soon as lunchtime was over, it slowly emptied out. That was almost like an attraction for the tourist - it's never just abut the food.

* Few people realise that the Planetarium in Baker St no longer exists and only the Greenwich Maritime Museum houses a Planetarium in London. 

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