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You’ll never find a better bit of batter

It's a golden era for Colmans of South Shields, a century-old fish-and-chip restaurant.

It may seem unlikely for an Italian family to win awards for fish and chips – but this is my story. My great-grandparents immigrated to South Shields in 1900 and started Colmans in 1905. The shop was a hut on the beach. A portion of fish and chips cost one old penny. There were no mushy peas then.

Three generations on, we now sell several thousand fish a month and many different sustainable species.

I took over from my mum in 1989. I haven’t changed the recipe – but we’ve upgraded the restaurant and the menu. It’s a golden era: the fish are sustainable, the product natural and unprocessed, the fat content lower than you would expect. We have been to Rome to serve fish and chips for the Queen’s birthday party in the British ambassador’s residence and we’ve also given our expertise at the ambassador’s residence in Guatemala.

Fish and chips sounds easy. Potato, fish, flour and water – what could go wrong? But the difference between the crisp and enticing and the greasy and tasteless is worth a Michelin star, so it’s not as easy as it looks.

The quality of the fish is more than half the battle. Ours are caught off the cold clean seas of the north Atlantic and from local day boats brought in at North Shields.

We take a daily delivery. The Marine Stewardship Council standard is a guarantee that we are not cheating the next generation. 

With two thirds of the world fish stocks overfished, there is a real crisis and I don’t want to add to it.

Celebrity chefs have asked me for my batter recipe and I wouldn’t sell it, so I can hardly blurt it out here.

Suffice to say the core is flour, water and a couple of other ingredients. People often go wrong with the temperature of the water that goes into the batter, the consistency of that temperature, and then the temperature of the oil. Basically, cold batter gets sealed quickly by very hot oil. Then the fish doesn’t come into contact with the oil and instead is encased and steams inside.

About four to five minutes is our average. We do not leave cooked fish sitting on the range, we cook every single fish to order.

This brings me to the frying medium. There’s a regional divide. Others use dripping, groundnut or rapeseed oil; at Colmans we use vegetable oil, which I think is really a regional preference.

The potatoes vary according to the season. The secret of a good chipping potato is crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle. We use Maris Piper, Accord, Sagitta, King Edwards.

It’s not just the potato. It’s the chip size. Thick cut is not part of a war against the French. It means a lot less oil and a healthier and better-tasting chip. We use blended vegetable oil.

Generation game

In the north-east, a chip stottie (a locally baked flatbread filled with chips) is a regional speciality. Each to his own and it’s not for me. But the mushy peas matter. Ours are plump marrowfat peas steeped over night and cooked fresh daily.

I was brought up to drink tea with fish and chips. But we’ve started doing an excellent trade in wines and beers.

I’m delighted to say there is a fifth generation to take over the Colmans dynasty. But there is one frontier that has not been crossed.  My Italian mother-in-law still cooks pasta at home.

My last word? Buy them from your local chippy and leave it to the professionals. Enjoy!

Richard Ord is the chef and patron of Colmans of South Shields, 176-186 Ocean Road, South Shields, Tyne and Wear

Richard Ord is a former Sunderland FC footballer.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis