This is a simple story about eating fish and chips.
My story could go like this: “I went to Italy. I ate some fish and chips. They tasted great.” And that could be it. But it’s not.
The fish supper is iconic. They are part of our childhoods, conjuring up vivid memories, tastes and smells. A teenager, eating a poke of chips after a Friday at the ice rink when another pathetic attempt at attracting a girl had failed, the vinegar assaulting my nostrils. Older, standing outside a chip shop after last orders, a few beers along the way, thinking that nothing in the world could ever taste as great as this. I still remain helpless to the salivatory Pavlovian response which the aroma from a good chip shop can trigger on a cold winter’s evening.
So, where should this story start?
Perhaps with a thought. That sometimes, it is a fresh look at the mundane, the everyday, that affords us a greater understanding of how communities come to be, our shared experiences, our different origins. So it is with the fish supper. The history of any society can be defined as the history of hunger. Our country and our heritage evolved, and are shaped at least to some extent, by the food that we eat. Fish and chips are just such a foodstuff. Quintessentially British. Or so we imagine.
So this story should really start in Edinburgh.
Sometime in the 1960s. Friday. My sister and I would get the bus into town with mum. Dad would lock up his shop and then off to Tommy Romano’s for tea. This was a real chip shop. Tommy would be up before dawn, buying fish from the wee inshore boats that landed every morning at Port Seton. Driving back to town and then gutting them, scaling them, filleting them. Humping in the sacks of potatoes. Peeling them, slicing them, soaking them. Making the batter. Resting for a while. (Both the batter and him.) Then back down to the shop again, melting down the solid dripping until he heard that ‘note’ which told him he could start cooking. Come four, the rush would start.
The haddock were huge and crispy. We would sit in my dad’s Ford Zephyr and eat, the hot crunch of the golden batter, revealing thick, white, steaming flakes of zingingly fresh haddock, atop chunky slabs of potato rustling saltily in the paper, the aromatic nose-tingling fug steaming up the windows, fingers getting joyously greasy, a buttered roll, a shared bottle of red cola. Unaware that what I was tasting was not just my tea but also the exquisite culmination of a fantastic story of hardship, poverty and emigration.
And that story starts in a medieval hilltop town called Barga, where, to cut a long, complex and momentous episode in its history short, the unification of Italy led to the money drying up. By 1880, staggering poverty and real hunger caused the Barghigiani to despair for their lives. So just about everyone left. Many went to America. But some came to Scotland. Can you imagine how incredibly difficult it must have been for them? They spoke no English. With radically different customs. Few had a trade. Or money. Or education.
But astonishingly, by the early part of the twentieth century, most of the ice-cream cafes and chip shops in Scotland were operated by Italians, despite these shops being uncommon, unheard of even, in their homeland. A terrible, fascinating and ultimately joyful story of Italy’s mass emigration, the hard work, the emerging Italian-Scots hybrid, the war, internment, their massive contribution to and ultimate absorption into the wider Scottish family. But it is also resonant with today’s preoccupations. About economic migration. About a fear of outsiders. Of ‘others’. And how ultimately all such outsiders are assimilated and absorbed, providing new vigour and fresh perspectives, contributing their own colourful threads to our developing national tapestry.
And Barga? By the 1920s, Barga was left desolate, almost uninhabited. A near ghost town. But gradually, wealth came back to Barga as have many of the diaspora and their offspring. And every year, in July, they celebrate La Sagra del Pesce e Patate – the festival of Fish and Chips. It is however more than some superficial nostalgic indulgence. It offers the Barghigiani an opportunity to reflect on their heritage and to remember the sacrifices and sheer bloody tenaciousness of previous generations. They are a peculiarly hybrid community, proud of both their ancestors and their unique heritage, but with a common bond with their other, Scottish homeland.
And so I went to the Sagra. A fantastical experience. The crowds. The hiss of the countless fryers. The declamatory lunacy of Italians in conversation and the effortless shift to the glorious patois and patter of the Italian Scots. They argued good-naturedly over who made the best chips, the crispiest fish, the places they’d lived in for a generation or more before returning to Barga. I spoke to some of them and heard their stories. True fairy stories. Tales of rags to riches, of loss and redemption, of leaving a desperate pauper and returning in (relative) wealth. Of overcoming hardship, injustice and prejudice and coming out the other side.
I sat in the relative silence of a warm Tuscan evening and ate my ludicrously incongruous fish and chips. Which, by the by, were just fine.
So what is this story about? At one level, it’s about not very much at all. It’s just about the mundane act of eating fried food. But it is also about something else. That as we lick our fingers to get those last, glorious, salty, vinegary remnants, it is worth pondering how something as simple as the humble fish supper is soaked not just in salt and vinegar but also in migration, in the connecting histories of Italy and Scotland. A story which crosses Europe, generations, cultures, to a shared heritage and experience, nourishing our bodies, our souls, our nation.