After a slight deviation, I’m firmly back on the ‘Now and Then’ this month – picking out a current news item and allowing it to take me (and you, I hope) down Memory Lane. Here goes …
We start at a fish and chip shop in Yorkshire, specifically on the A64 at Bilbrough Top, near York. It’s in the news because it has become massively popular with Chinese tourists who turn up by the coach load to sample its delights.
Manager Roxy Vasai (whose name alone is an inspiration) reckons this sudden popularity stems from the 2015 visit to the UK of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. He was photographed sharing a plate of fish and chips with David Cameron, and Chinese visitors are keen to follow their leader’s example. How they came to choose Bilbrough Top and Scotts Fish and Chips is still something of a mystery.
However (and this is where the ‘Then’ bit comes in) I have a very strong memory of visiting Hong Kong in the mid 1980s when, coincidentally, the colony’s first fish and chip shop was opened. It was a branch of the famous Harry Ramsden chain, managed by an English chap, and with all the traditional Ramsden trimmings – lots of highly polished brasswork and an ornate chandelier.
The latter had been imported from England, as had the cod, plaice, haddock and other fish, and the Lincolnshire potatoes. Also, large jars of pickled eggs and gherkins, tomato sauce as well as the traditional brown varieties – HP and Daddies. It was as close as you could get to the real article. No, amend that. It was the real article.
When I turned up, with a BBC camera crew, it had been open for only a few days, but already local folk were queuing around the block. The land of the takeaway meal had obviously fallen, hook, line and sinker, for the original takeaway. Fish and chips wrapped in greaseproof paper and a couple of pages of the South China Morning Post, were being carried away by gleeful Hong Kongers almost by the ton.
For customers who preferred to ‘eat in’, the Ramsden emporium had a restaurant area, with waitress service, where you could order a large pot of tea to accompany your fishy feast and, if so inclined, bread and butter (brown bread, cut into triangles, as is obligatory in upper class chippies).
So, much as I hate to disappoint Roxy and the staff of Scotts, this is clear evidence that the Chinese desire for fish and chips long pre-dates President Xi’s visit to Britain.
At the Hong Kong Ramsden, as at Scotts, the menu was bi-lingual, though the Hong Kong version had a few literal flourishes. I particularly remember Mushy Peas being described as ‘the Caviar of the North’. You never forget a phrase like that.
Having begun to mine this seam of how British food can prove unexpectedly popular among foreign folk, my train of thought takes me to Lyon, regarded as the gastronomic capital of France, mainly because Maurice Curnonsky wrote a book in 1935 which, with typical Gallic modesty, was called ‘Lyon, World Capital of Gastronomy’ but also because world-famous chefs have learned and plied their trade in that city.
Again, memories are stirred. This time, a visit in the late 1960s when our tour guide was obsessed by ‘squinches’, an architectural feature of which Lyon is proud. He seemed to think they helped the Resistance evade capture by the occupying Nazis during the war, but I was never able to work out how. Still, we let him go on at length about them, as it kept him happy.
Then, almost as an afterthought, he wondered if we might be interested in a new restaurant that had just been opened by an Englishman. We certainly were and went post haste to see how this brave venture was faring. It was faring well – much more than well, in fact.
To everyone’s amazement (though not that of the Englishman) the gourmets of Lyon had taken to roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and other English fare. The place was very busy, especially on Sundays. And, to his credit, he had managed to persuade the local folk to try English cheeses. This, I venture to suggest, is pretty nigh impossible, but he had succeeded in tempting them with his Red Leicester, his Sage Derby, his Stilton (of course) and his Wensleydale.
I can’t recall the name of his restaurant, but I do know that a handful of establishments are managing to carry on his good work in Lyon. A couple of them are fish and chip places, but the Elephant and Castle is said to provide first class pub grub, and Le Luminarium has a fine reputation.
So, you see, our cuisine can be exported with success to even the most fastidious of destinations – and they don’t come more fastidious than France where food is concerned.
Having been a regular visitor to Orlando, Florida (I first went there long before The Mouse moved in), I have observed many efforts to introduce English cuisine to our American cousins. Most ‘English’ establishments in Orlando are aimed at English tourists, of course, the best example being the Rose and Crown pub which is part of the English pavilion at EPCOT.
But, in Orlando, an American lady named Sandra something-or-other once told me of her plan to create a chain (franchised, of course) of Cornish Pasty parlours. She had encountered the pasty on a visit to the West Country and was convinced it would go down well back home. I never did find out if her dream came true, but like to think it did.
Incidentally, a relatively successful – though sadly short-lived – food shop franchise in the USA was ‘Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips’. Treacher was an English born actor who found fame in Hollywood in the 1920s and 30s, though, sadly, the clip of him singing “Knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road”, with Shirley Temple, is no longer available on YouTube. At its height, the chain had 900 outlets which must have provided pleasure and a little profit to Arthur in his twilight years. His last film role was that of PC Jones, in ‘Mary Poppins’. He died in 1975.
All of which, I suppose, just goes to show that, though it comes mainly in the form of fish and chips, English cuisine is exportable and amazingly successful, if given a chance. And I haven’t even got round to mentioning English wines, which win prizes even in France – though usually in blind tastings, as the French hate to admit that Perfidious Albion is capable of beating them at their own game.
And there’s a whole other story to be told of the English brewery, complete with shire horses, that once existed in a converted electricity sub-station in downtown Manhattan. Another day, perhaps.