Things can only get batter for our great national fish treat?

Simon Tyler tucks in at The Life Boat
Simon Tyler tucks in at The Life Boat
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Fish and chips has always been a key part of the Hastings experience, but is the town starting to lose its tasty touch? Reporter ROB ALDERSON investigates.

GOLDEN batter, gloriously fresh cod or plaice and perfectly-cooked potatoes – good fish and chips can be an almost religious experience.

It’s the taste of the seaside, the taste of nostalgia and childhood summer holidays, the taste of sticking two fingers up to the organic evangelicals who would like to see deep fat fryers rounded up and destroyed.

Ask anyone who lives in Hastings and St Leonards where the best plaice (sorry) to get fish and chips is, and they won’t all agree, but you can be sure they will all have an opinion – definite, unshakeable and forcefully argued (again the religious parallel is instructive).

But recently the quality of our fish and chips has been called into question. For the first time in years, a national newspaper survey to find the best 50 fish and chip shops in the UK did not feature a single entry from 1066 Country. And last year on his blog, writer Will Self chastised an underwhelming experience he had “crunching batter behind the fishing sheds of Hastings Old Town.”

“This last experience was depressing,” he grumbled, “for while Hastings boasts the only inshore fleet still to land on the south coast, the fish wasn’t fresh at all.”

Even though almost one restaurant in six is a fish and chip shop here, has Hastings lost its foodie soul (or sole)?

No, according to Maggie Banfield, who runs the iconic fish and chip cafe named after her on The Stade. “I haven’t noticed any drop in trade at all and it’s the same for everybody – all the shops are packed and they are queuing up outside places like The Blue Dolphin at the weekends.

“Everything’s got to be fresh, everything’s got to be good quality and we cook everything to order. I would like someone to come in here and say a bad word about the food – they can’t. I have been here 18 years and have never heard a bad word so I must be doing something right.

“People can write what they like but everyone knows the truth,” she added.

Does she think the arrival of the Jerwood Gallery might attract a clientele more keen on tuna carpaccio than cod and chips?

“What difference will Jerwood make to the way people eat? I get all sorts of people in here, people from all walks of life, including very posh people and very arty people. I can’t see that changing.”

Maggie’s passion is inspiring, and the quality of her food legendary. But are all her competitors cooking to such exacting standards?

I enlisted Simon Tyler, a St Leonards-based former restaurant reviewer and a man who admits to occasional “cravings” for fish and chips, to go and sample the wares at the three most-mentioned restaurants in an online poll we conducted. On a sunny weekday lunchtime we hit Ocean’s Eleven in Bexhill Road, St Leonards, The Mermaid in Rock-a-Nore and The Life Boat on East Beach Street.

Ocean’s Eleven boasted the best fish, exquisitely cooked, with light crispy batter and scored well on the chips too. The Mermaid was by far the busiest and had by far the biggest portions although the batter was quite greasy and Simon thought the chips were “bland.”

At The Lifeboat we marvelled at what he called “an impressive looking thing”, crisp swirls of batter and good chips that kept us coming back.

What struck us though was the diversity.

“It’s really interesting,” said Simon. “ There seems to be two types of fish and chips. The first are these seafront places that cater for day trippers. It’s disappointing when it’s done badly but when it’s done well it’s this great big impressive event, with a real sense of place and a sense of occasion,” he added.

“It might not be that exciting but you don’t mind. Then there’s the places which cater for locals like Ocean’s Eleven, and can’t rely so much on the seasonal tourist trade. There it’s all about repeat customers, there’s a bit more care in the cooking and you feel less guilty about eating it so you come back for more.”

The health issue is an interesting one. With the recent crusade against fast food, has fish and chips had its day?

“It’s fine as part of a balanced diet, just as long as you’re not eating them for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Alison Levinson, an Old Town-based diet consultant and self-confessed fish and chips fan. “You just have to treat it as a treat.”

“There are plenty of places to buy good food in Hastings and there are lots of good restaurants, but fish and chips is still part of the experience of coming to the seaside and I would hate to see that go. I have noticed in the supermarkets it is easier to buy good quality healthy food but a lot of my clients know what they should be eating – it’s just sometimes they can’t be bothered.”

Amen to that. Sometimes only fish and chips will do, and reports of our fish and chip demise have been greatly exaggerated.