Sunday, April 8, 2012

Great British Seaside Dish

It’s hard to think of a more atmospheric UK coastal resort than Whitby in North Yorkshire, its red-roofed houses hugging the Esk River below the striking ruins of an ancient abbey. Generations of vacationers have wiggled their toes in Whitby’s golden sands and strolled along the bustling harbor, building up an appetite for that greatest of seaside pleasures: deep-fried fish and chips.

 The sea is embedded in Whitby’s history – from humble medieval herring port to booming 18th-century whaling town – while its shipyards built the vessels that took England’s greatest explorer, Captain James Cook, on his remarkable voyages of discovery. Even today, there’s a real air of romance and excitement on any visit, from the steam trains that chug into the harborside station to the higgledypiggledy cottages of the Georgian old town.
 While Whitby and its glorious sandy beach remains at heart a traditional pail-and-shovel resort, there are boutique stirrings among the town’s hotels and B&Bs, and a new wave of café-bars and restaurants doing great things with shellfish, sea bass, oysters, and lobster, along with other locally sourced produce. But there’s still only one must-have dish on a day trip to Whitby – good old-fashioned fish and chips.
 For such a well-known dish, its origins are obscure. The fried-fish dishes of immigrant Portuguese and Spanish Jews were already popular in London during Victorian times, while contemporary northern mill workers were enthusiastic consumers of fried “chips” made from potatoes dug from the rich Lancashire soil.
 When the two came together, a cheap, nutritious working-class delicacy was born. It quickly took hold across the nation – nowhere in England is more than 70 miles (110 km) from the coast – but for the quintessential fish-and-chips experience, there’s still no beating the beguiling marriage of sand, sun, and sea air.

 In Whitby, chunky cod and haddock fillets are the mainstays of carry-outs and upmarket restaurants alike, deep-fried in golden batter, sprinkled with salt and malt vinegar, and served with a mountain of chips. Batter recipes are zealously guarded, and the best places are proud to say they fry their fish and potatoes in traditional beef dripping or lard. For purists, the only accompaniment is mushy peas (marrowfat peas, cooked down to a purée), and if the whole lot is eaten out of paper on the beach, so much the better.
 The harborside cafés and restaurants of Whitby are selling more than just a dish – those heady salt-andvinegar tones evoke nothing less than a collective national memory of seaside jaunts and happy holidays.
Fish and Chips
 Magpie Café moderate
The venerable Magpie Café  run by three generations of the same family over several decades – is synonymous with fish and chips, both in Whitby and far beyond. It’s a traditionallooking black-and-white building on the harborside, right by the fish market, unremarkable from the outside save for the line snaking down the steps and along the street, in any weather, at any time of the year (reservations aren’t usually accepted). The lure is simply spectacular fish and chips – and not just cod and haddock, but plaice, skate, monkfish, lemon sole, or halibut, sourced wherever possible directly from Whitby fishing boats or fish merchants and perfectly fried in their own-recipe batter. The same fish also comes grilled or poached, while a very long menu also offers time-honored Magpie favorites from Whitby crab and kippers to seafood chowder and lobster thermidor. Portions are “Yorkshire-sized” (i.e., big), and the long-serving staff are helpful and motherly. 14 Pier Road, Whitby; open 11:30 AM–9 PM daily;
 Also in Whitby 
The lines aren’t so long, but the fish and chips are still excellent at Trenchers (www.; moderate), where you can also watch the fryers at work. For posh fish and chips, and a more upmarket fish and seafood experience all around, Green’s (www.; expensive) sets the local standard – the boat skippers who land their fish are name-checked on the menu.
Also in England
 Every town and city in England has a favorite local “chippy” (fish-and-chips restaurant or carry-out), and annual competitions and awards anoint the best, often in otherwise unsung places. Colmans in South Shields, also in the northeast (; inexpensive) is a classic of its kind, in business since 1926, and while Harry Ramsdens ( is now a wellknown national chain, the original restaurant in Guiseley, outside Leeds, still draws pilgrims.
 Around the World
 The dish has followed the English around the world, from New York to New Zealand. In Hong Kong, there’s classic cod and chips at Dot Cod (; expensive), an upmarket seafood restaurant and oyster bar, while Sydney, Australia, is renowned for quality beachside fish and chips, like those from Mongers (; inexpensive), found at Manly and Bondi beaches.
 What Else to Eat
 Fortune’s ( is Whitby’s only traditional smokehouse, tucked up a cobbled lane in the old town, just beyond the bottom of the 199 Steps. It’s been a Fortune family concern since 1872, producing what many argue are England’s best oak- and beech-smoked kippers – locals, visitors, and TV chefs alike all make the pilgrimage to the unassuming smokehouse and shop that lies sheltered under the east-side cliffs. Kippers are smoked Atlantic herring, still prepared by hand at Fortune’s, alongside a delicious kipper pâté and smoked salmon, haddock, and bacon. A pair of Fortune’s kippers is a true taste of Whitby, and many local hotels and restaurants serve Fortune’s kippers to their guests.
 A Day in Whitby
 Most visits to Whitby are divided between the cobbled old town and the beach. It’s only a small place (population around 15,000), but it makes a great base for exploring the nearby smugglers’ villages and coastal cliff-top paths and also the North York Moors National Park.
 Make an early visit (by 7:00 AM) to the fish market, and then stroll along the harbor for a view of town from the long, curving pier. Cross the river by the swing bridge to explore the old town on the east side – including the Captain Cook Memorial Museum before climbing the 199 steps to the dramatic ruins of Whitby Abbey.
Even if the beach beckons, don’t miss Whitby Museum and its amazing collection of Jurassic period fossils. Fang-fans can also follow the Dracula trail around town – Bram Stoker set his famous novel here.
Walk up to the Captain Cook Monument to join an early evening guided “ghost walk” around the town’s hidden alleys and lanes, before choosing a fish and seafood restaurant for dinner.
Whitby is on England’s northeastern coast, an hour’s drive (or bus ride) from York. York lies on the East Coast train line between London and Edinburgh; there are also direct trains to York from Manchester International Airport. A steam railroad runs to nearby Pickering.
Dillons (inexpensive) has classy, contemporary B&B rooms.
White Horse & Griffin (moderate) is a stylishly updated coaching inn and restaurant.
La Rosa (expensive) offers quirky, vintage Victorian surroundings.
Whitby Tourist Information Centre, Langborne Road;

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