One of life’s simple pleasures, unmatched by no manner of silver service or molecular gastronomy, is a plate of freshly cooked, crispy fish and chips. That said, one of life’s great disappointments is a newspaper full of limp shark and soggy chunks of chalky potato.
But what is it that makes the difference between the great and not-so-great? Darren Mercaldi, head chef of the Middle Park Hotel, is a veteran of the venerable dish.
“First of all, you’ve got to use good-quality fish,” he says. “That’s a no-brainer.”
While Mercaldi’s using local snapper at the moment, he also reckons flathead and barramundi hold up pretty well. But for his money, King George whiting is the unofficial fish and chip world champion. “King George whiting is…probably the ultimate frying fish,” he says. “It’s nice and thin and it cooks quick, so you don’t have to overdo the batter. It’s the king of fish and chips.”
The quality of the batter is equally crucial to making a top-notch dish. “Crispy batter, that’s very important,” says Mercaldi. “You don’t want soggy, saggy fish.” Mercaldi uses a mix of cornflour and flour for the Middle Park Hotel’s batter, and adds that essential ingredient to any good batter: beer.
Chips, of course, should be given equal attention. Mercaldi believes in the hand-cut, triple-cooked chip. “We cut them all ourselves, steam them, cool them down,” he explains. “Then we blanche them first, and then deep fry them to serve so they’re nice and crunchy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside.”
Fresh, clean oil is a critical part of the equation too. “We change the oil here every day,” he says, noting that most fish and chip shops wouldn’t do it anywhere near as regularly.
To serve, there’s no reason to break with tradition. Old-fashioned tartare sauce makes the perfect accompaniment, as does a dollop of tomato sauce for your chips. Mercaldi also supports a controversial addition to the classic dish. “Mushy peas if you’re a Brit,” he suggests. “Every chef I’ve ever worked for always wants mushy peas.”
And what kind of beer should we drink with the perfect fish and chips? “Cold,” he says. Can’t argue with that.