“D’you want salt and sauce with that?” offers the man behind the counter. My face twists in disgust. No: I absolutely do not. “Salt and vinegar, please.” I’m in the Fife fishing village of Anstruther, on the opposite side of the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. I’m with a friend and we’re here with just one thing in mind – fish’n’chips.
The traditional meal from the chippie has a bad reputation – and if you’ve ever subjected yourself to a soggy packet of potato fingers and a flaccid piece of flatfish one wet night on the way back from the pub you’ll understand exactly why. But the same can be said for most meals, I guess: and even yesterday’s leftovers can be turned into a Michelin-starred meal if you know what to do.
In Your Bucket Because
- If you go to the UK you really should try fish and chips – and it’s at its best here.
- It’s popular with local people – always a good sign.
- You’ll get some idea of the historical background to your meal.
- Great for foodies and heritage buffs.
So it is with fish and chips. Brown sauce notwithstanding, the fishing settlements of the so-called East Neuk of Fife have become a bit of a Mecca for it. Where I come from one of the village names (Anstruther, Pittenweem or Crail to mention but three) in the same sentence as the word ‘lunch’ means only one thing.
Which is where we came in. We’ve just collected our treasure from the award-winning Anstruther Fish Bar (former Fish & Chip Shop of the Year) one of several such establishments on the village’s harbour front. All brass rails and staff in crisp white uniforms, it has a definite 1950s feel about it. At one end you queue for your takeaway (you can be queuing out of the door when it’s busy) and at the other you queue for home-made ice cream. In the middle there’s a crammed area of a dozen or so tables where the lucky few get a seat.
Choosing and Eating Your Fish Supper
We’ve gone for the house special, haddock, but you can choose pretty much anything to go with your chips, not just different types of fish but sausage or chicken or burgers and Scottish delicacies such as haggis or various oatmeal puddings – though fortunately the menu spares us the option of that peculiar gastronomic aberration, the deep-fried Mars Bar.
Outside it’s sunny. The wide and spacious harbour front is amply provided with seats. Almost every one, it seems to us, is occupied by families and couples, by their accents exclusively Scottish, opening their cardboard boxes and tucking in. We find a space, spread ourselves comfortably across our bench (keeping a wary eye out for the seagulls, who can get a little overfamiliar) and tuck in.
I’ll let you into a secret. I don’t really like fish and chips. But as I break off the end of my fillet of haddock (no forks here) and bite into the piping hot crispy batter, I’m pretty much converted. The chips are crunchy on the outside and almost like fondant on the inside: the haddock flakes tastily in the mouth and a side serving of mushy peas pretends to add virtue. This must be what food tastes like in heaven.
What’s the secret? I don’t know – but there are a few clues to be had in the chip shop. The fish is today’s catch from the North Sea (a chalked sign on the counter tells you the name of the boat that landed it). Where possible it’s local (the potatoes, milk, rolls and eggs are all from Fife and even the wine is Scottish). Above all, it’s properly and freshly cooked to order – which is part of the reason you’ll queue for it.
The portions are enormous and I can’t quite finish mine. My friend has no such inhibitions, polishing off hers with gusto. Replete, we sit on the harbour and watch the boats, wondering what to do next. We consider a trip to the Scottish Fisheries Museum to find out more about the place, but no. “Better walk that off,” she says.
So we turn our faces to the sea shore and the cliffs for a brisk walk. About a mile or so out you can get a good view of Anstruther, lying along the sheltered harbour like a cat taking a nap. We pause to admire it, then walk on. And after another fifteen minutes a strange thing happens. I begin to think I fancy a plate of chips….
- Anstruther is one of the East Neuk fishing villages, about an hour from Edinburgh or fifteen minutes from St Andrews by car. Or you can get the bus, but it takes around twice as long
- There’s more to Anstruther than just fish and chips – you can stroll along the Fife Coast path, visit the Scottish Fisheries Museum or (tides permitting) take a boat trip to the Isle of May
- The other East Neuk villages are worth seeing too – picturesque, with plenty of independent craft shops and galleries