Thursday 10 July 2014

The Swan, Southport

Today I'm going to do something I have only ever done once before on this blog - re-review a restaurant. Unlike the other time I re-reviewed a place, however, this is not a panicky PR-led excursion on the back of a disastrous first visit. Nor is this even the chance to update a score following a dramatic change in quality or new direction. Quite the opposite; the subject in question has varied very little about the way it goes about things for at least as long as I've been alive, and probably well before that.

No, I'm re-reviewing the Swan, a fish and chip shop in Southport, for two reasons. Firstly, because it's brought me more joy over the years than almost anywhere else I can think of, and this post is an extended "thank you" for countless deeply brilliant dinners from as far back as I can remember. Secondly, and more importantly, it's because as many people as possible from around the world - and specifically London - need to sit down to a plate of haddock and chips at this Merseyside institution and discover exactly how badly wrong they themselves have been getting it so far.

Fish and chips is a simple concept: battered, deep-fried white fish, chips, marrowfat mushy peas. Malt vinegar and salt to finish, and perhaps some ground white pepper if you so wish. But let's not be confusing "simple" with "easy". There's a longish list of "do"s and "don't"s I could rattle off at this point but to save time (and eye-rolling from anyone from North of Watford who consider it all to be bleeding obvious anyway), here are the main irrefutable characteristics of fish & chips:

- Acceptable fish are cod, haddock or plaice. Add whiting or pollack or God knows what else to the menu if you must, but if at least one of cod, haddock or plaice aren't also available, you've fallen at the first hurdle.

- Mushy peas are marrowfat peas, not crushed garden peas, and certainly not minted. If you're very worried about the artifically dyed bright-green mushies, then you can use the less colourful undyed, but if you start dealing with garden peas you deserve to be a laughing stock.

- Chips, not wedges, and not fries. There is a correct size for fish & chip chips, thin enough to give a good bite while not making you feel you're tackling a Sunday roast, but not too thin to soak up too much salt & vinegar. And mess about all you like with beef dripping and triple-cooking by all means, but all I'll say is if the Swan make the best chips in Britain (which they do) using nothing more than vegetable oil, there's no excuse for anyone else reinventing the wheel.

Those are the basics, then, but needless to say there's plenty of room for manoeuvre here and using this simple formula it's still possible to get things badly wrong. Peas aside, for example, the Fish and Chip Shop in Islington did most things right on paper, but still somehow ended up with a ludicrous inflated balloon of pallid batter encasing a tragically overcooked mush of cod inside. And mess up your cooking temperatures and you run the risk of ending up with those horrid, soggy orange chips that make you feel ill just looking at them; cooking the perfect chips is a science all to itself.

For the masterclass, then, we must return to the Swan. Here the chips are never deep golden brown like what seems to be considered "correct" in fancy London restaurants; they are lighter, the larger ones with gentle give rather than an obvious crunch but (if you're lucky) still plenty of the smaller crunchy bits to chase around the plate or bag towards the end of your dinner. The mushy peas are earthy and rich, thick enough to pile up on a chip but not dry or claggy.

The fish itself, bright as the driven snow and with the kind of loose, defined flakes you get from timing the cooking just-so, is encased in a firm but remarkably thin batter that somehow (and there's always a touch of the black magic to the best chip shop fish) manages to retain its deep golden hue and snap right until the final mouthful. The cross-section here shows you just how thin the batter can be; if you have three inches of aggressively crunchy batter to drill through before you reach the fish, it displays a lack of confidence in your frying skills as well as a worrying attitude to your customers' long-term health.

In an ideal world, your friendly waitress would bring a plate of white bread and butter to use making chip butties. Also in an ideal world you'll be eating your food either out of a bag on the seafront or in a room largely unchanged since the 1980s populated by every cross-section of Southport society. You'll probably also want a wall studded with clippings from the local press, and a bill that never exceeds £10/head. In short, in an ideal world you will be eating fish and chips in the Swan, Southport. But hey, we can't all be that fortunate.


Swan Fish & Chips on Urbanspoon


Yay, it's Matt said...

Vegetables deserve no room when you're eating fish and chips (there's a clue in the name). But then you're eating it off a plate, so clearly it was going to be wrong from the start.

You wrong'un.

Yay, it's Matt said...

Wait, is that wine?!


Unknown said...

Best fish and chips I've ever had.

Kate said...

One of the great joys of marrying a Mersey boy is that I get to visit his in-laws and eat fish and chips like this. Looks like they leave the skin on the fish here though? They don't do that in Yorkshire where I grew up, so can't get used to the different taste.

Chris Pople said...

Matt: Fish and chips without mushy peas is like a burger without... a bun. Or something. And yes that is wine, bit of a tradition of ours but I think the best drink to go with F&C is lemonade.

Kate: Yes skin on at the Swan, mum leaves it but me & dad eat it. No idea whether this is considered 'canon' but I do like the skin.

Helen said...

No pickled egg?

Yay, it's Matt again! said...

I'm not having it. Peas and plates and wine. So much wrongness. Make brain stop work good.

So here's a question - if mushy peas have to come with fish and chips, and The Swan is the best fish and chip place in the world (because if it's the best in England it must be best in the world, right?) do you get a choice, or do they slap the peas on without asking?

Matt's still here! said...

Re: the skin / no skin issue, I think the skin is really easy to get wrong, and bad skin ruins the fish. I like it when it's done right, but I think I'd probably rather have it without.

Hollow Legs said...

Another irrefutable fact; if you're able to finish all the chips on your plate, they haven't given you enough.

Heloise said...

Have to say that, while this place may be good, it would take bronze in any competition with Marshall's in Tynemouth and Coleman's in South Shields.

Anonymous said...

For those of us who cannot make it to Southport any time soon (I know, excuses excuses) - where do you recommend in London (ideally zone 1 or 2) to get the closest possible experience?

Hatch said...

We have America to thank for the perfect side to a portion of fish and chips; step forward the humble can of Coke, ice-cold

Hatch said...

Anon, no offence but if you're not willing to travel outside of Zone 2 for the best chippy in London you don't deserve to know

SarahC said...

Agree with EVERYTHING you say, Chris, except my drink of choice would be a cup of tea. Not too strong, not too milky.

Anonymous said...

So right with the cup of tea, Chez Fred Bournemouth, I like. I am not sure if the one of my childhood is still as good,
Also tried , good but not as good as the two above.
Aint there no chippies in Shoreditch? The last Fish and Chips I had in London were awful.
Funny, pies were on the menu a lot when I was young, 'Hollands'and such forth, I wonder what they are like now I have grown up?

Anonymous said...

Skin is left on, I'm told, to keep the cod in one piece when frying. Haddock comes without skin because it holds together better.