Friday night fishing

Fins & Gills
St Paul’s Bay

Food: 8/10
Location: 4/10
Service: 8/10
Value: 8/10
Overall: 8/10

When Winston Churchill spoke of “the good companions” he was not waxing lyrical about his be­loved pet dogs Dodo and Rufus. He was in actual fact referring to an iconic British dish, that of fish and chips.

It is a mouth-watering combination – moist, juicy white fish, covered in a good coating of crisp, golden batter, served alongside a generous helping of piping hot, fluffy chips and a portion of mushy peas. I like my fish and chips salted, with a splash of vinegar.

As pastizzi are to the Maltese, fish and chips is to the British. This is a treasured national dish. Although outsold by pizza, bur­gers and Chinese and Indian food, fish and chips remains Britain’s best loved takeaway.

This British staple epitomises comfort food, so much so that it is has been suggested that two world wars were won on the back of fish and chips. In a bid to sustain morale and keep the masses in good spirits, the safeguarding of supplies became a top government priority. Fishermen risked and sacrificed their lives out at sea, under attack from submarines and dive bombers, in a bid to keep fish supplies up. Fish and potatoes were one of the few food items that were never rationed during war time.

Although fish and chips is considered an emblem of Britishness, its origins are curiously un­British. Chipped potatoes hail from France or Belgium, the common spud having arrived from South America by the 16th century. But it would take a number of years for the potato to transition from a luxury crop to a staple one. In fact, the origin of the humble chip can be traced back to the 17th century.

Fried fish had been around for a while, introduced by Spanish and Portuguese Marrano refu­gees who arrived in Britain in the 16th century, casualties of the Spanish Inquisition. As nominal Christians they would fry their fish on a Friday along with other God-fearing Catholics, but would wait to eat it cold on the Sabbath when cooking was forbidden.

Fried fish must really be cooked to perfection if it is to be eaten cold. Good quality oil was thus used in the frying process, and not dripping. And an exceptional batter was perfected in order to prevent the oil from penetrating and spoiling the fish.

Fried fish and potatoes had been eaten in Britain for centuries but they had always been sold and consumed separately. The Victorians get the honours for marrying the two together, making chipped potatoes the obligatory, invariable accompaniment to battered white fish, chiefly cod or haddock.

Honest, fresh food at its best

It was a stroke of genius, and a dynamic duo was born. In a country at the apex of its industrial prime, fish and chip shops sprung up everywhere, spreading like wildfire. The fish ’n’ chip shop thus quickly became as much a part of Victorian society as steam trains and smoky fog.

Fish and chips instantly became a mass market meal. Having started life as a cheap, fast food that sustained the working class and fuelled the Industrial Revolution, it gradually fought its way up through class barriers to become a British institution.

I was enjoying a fish and chips supper by the sea on a Friday night. I was not holidaying in England. I was in St Paul’s Bay, and the oppressive weather bore no resemblance  to a mild British summer.

Fins & Gills opened a little over a year ago. It is a tiny eatery. Three obese people would just about fit comfortably inside, providing they hold their breath and keep their arms down, plastered firmly to their sides.

In true fish and chip shop style, this place cannot classify as a restaurant. It is a takeaway shop with minimal seating facilities. There are small tables just outside on the pavement at which you can sit. This is all very well if you are partial to mouthfuls of car fumes and stale air.

But there are perks to eating at Fins & Gills; first and foremost, the fish. When you see the fantastic variety of quality, fresh fish on display you immediately sense that you could be in for a treat.

Apart from fish and chips, there’s a fish burger, fish cakes, a fritto misto and some local wild tuna or swordfish steaks available for grilling. The concise menu is a pleasantly fluid one, heavily dependent on the catch of the day and the seasonality of particular fish and shellfish.

The engaging chef is clearly passionate about seafood and appears completely in his element. Bubbling oil sizzles furiously as he chats away gregariously. He quickly prepares the food, expertly handling the fish in his gleaming galley kitchen.

At Fins & Gills they are tweaking tradition. If you twist their arm, they will use cod for your fish and chips. But the kitchen strongly favours frying up locally-caught fish like perch or rock salmon. They are champion contenders it turns out. In a few weeks’ time, seasonal lampuki (dorado) will be offered as one of the fish varieties used for fish and chips.

In keeping with this unconventional approach, fish and chip meals are not wrapped up in customary grease-proof paper and old newspaper. Food is served on plates or in neat takeaway boxes.

Those of you devoted to mushy peas will be sorely disappointed. There are no peas hiding in this kitchen, mushy or otherwise.

The deep-fried perch was tasty and utterly delicious. I speared a golden hunk with my fork, bursts of steam rising.

My only complaint was about the chips, which lacked that satisfying crunchiness. I like chips that possess a crisp, glass-like crust.

The fish burger, a patty composed of swordfish, prawns and neonati, topped with rucola and tomatoes and slammed in a bun, was the most moreish thing. The grilled tuna steak was delightful.

This is honest, fresh food at its best. I love the seasonality of the flexible menu and the distinctly local flair brought to certain dishes. In my mind, Fins & Gills can lay claim to fish and chips fame in Malta. I found the Mediterranean take on this British classic quite delectable. It was probably one of my ultimate fish and chips experiences.

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