"If you want flavour, stop at home": Will Self eats fish and chips at Harry Ramsdens

There’s not a sole in this plaice who could prove old Harry made cod claims.

It’s a strong claim: “The best fish and chips in the world”; as is another bon – but ungrammatical – mot, attributed to the Master Fryer himself: “There is no chip ever cut by man which cannot be cooked to perfection in three minutes.” Taken together, these propositions suggest a sort of fried-food cosmology – or possibly a gnosis, because, if you want to acquaint yourself with Harry Ramsden’s second law of chipodynamics you’ll have to pitch up at one of his 30-odd restaurants, which are scattered throughout the British isles much as . . . well, much as the crushed, dead chips were scattered on the tiled floor of the food court when I swung by the other day to test empirically the validity of his first law.
 
Of course, Ramsden himself is long gone. An interwar figure, he appears in sepia tones, grinning out from the chippy’s wall and, with his wing-collar and natty hat, closely resembling a cross between Wilfrid Brambell and Neville Chamberlain. He started the business in a hut in Guiseley, Leeds, in the late 1920s, but it’s grown and grown over the years, being snaffled up by corporate after corporate then regurgitated through mergers. The hut grew into a 250-seat restaurant – apparently the biggest fish-and-chip eatery in the world – but now this has gone the way of all chip fat: down the drain. After losing money for some years the parent company flogged it to an outfit called Wetherby Whaler.
 
I’ve eaten in various Ramsdens over the years, hanging on pathetically to the notion that buried in their red-and-white Formica frames there must remain beating a distinctively northern heart. But then, what’s in a white rose? A Harry Ramsden’s by any other name would probably taste remarkably similar. What I’m driving at here is that the food has not been great – contra Harry’s law, I’ve found soggy chips, pulpy fish in grotty batter, and mushy peas with the flavour and consistency of plumber’s mastic. I gave up on the chain for years after finding myself sitting over one too many inedible carbo-fests and ruefully contemplating boshing something up out of these building materials masquerading as nutrition.
 
Still, everyone deserves a second chance (except for me; I deserve at least 50), so I headed for that little beachhead of the north in the south, Euston Station, to see whether anything had improved. To begin with, the signs were not auspicious – there was the previously mentioned detritus on the floor, while on the counter sat a styrofoam tray in which reposed all of the lately fried elements tending towards gelid entropy. I shuddered, and thought: I don’t have to do this . . . I could pick up some sushi at M&S, or a burger from the King, or some noodles from Nam-Po! – hell, I could even buy a baguette from Delice de France and another from Upper Crust and have a sword fight with myself, scampering this way and that across the concourse until I was arrested by the British Transport Police. (And surely, there can be no richer and more satisfying humiliation than that.) 
 
Still, when the going gets tough, the tough get eating. The man behind the counter was the sole of courtesy as I havered between cod, plaice and haddock; a wholly otiose decision, since, as we all know, there should be a moratorium on the fishing – and by extension the eating – of all four. But before long I had my own styrofoam tray and was ready to assay Ramsden’s second law.
 
Well, I can report that the chips weren’t too bad at all: their outer layer pleasingly browned and crispy, their insides firm and yet melting. The batter on my cod was also of the right ductility, while the fish within flaked to perfection. As for the mushy peas – on the basis of their texture alone I would’ve sworn I was eating guacamole. True, I make no mention of the flavours of any of this food, but why would I? If you want flavour, stop at home – fast food aspires to the condition of being photographed, not consumed.
 
I ate about half my chips and all my battered cod and mushy peas. I drank my crap coffee, I listened to the train announcements and wished I were about to head north out of this cesspit of gourmandising towards a more earthy realm where nowt folk were queer and nowt needed frying for more than three minutes – including bruschetta. For all I know, Harry Ramsden’s may well serve the best fish and chips in the world, or the appearance of this slogan on their walls may be entirely accidental. The truth of both propositions is by no means inconsistent.
 
 
Fish and chips. Photo: Getty

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad