So how far would you go for a really, really good paper parcel full of fish & chips?
I was raised on fish and chips, and oysters that I watched being shucked by my dad just before being dipped in batter and deep-fried; and whitebait that I would scoop out in big handfuls from a sterilised kerosene tin; and crayfish (I was the one breaking off and eating their legs, as I stacked them for my dad, just seconds after they had emerged from a boiling copper). I just took it all for granted back in those good old Best Cafe days.
But fish&chips sort of fell out of favour when the Americans came to town to convince us that fried fish was bad for us and that fried chicken, mc burgers and pizzas were the all new healthy and ‘cool’ diet for a take-away treat and so, since the eighties we have sort of sold out our heritage. And with the declining popularity came, to my mind, declining standards in good old style fish and chips. It has become much harder to buy some fish and chips and, hand on heart, say that the fish was fresh, the batter crispy and golden and those chips were just yummy.
But when I happened upon the Akaroa Fish& Chip shop a couple of years ago, my taste buds were transported back forty years. This was true old school fish&chips. Located right on the Akaroa harbour-front, the fish were almost jumping out of the water straight onto the table. And this guy knew how to make a very, very good batter that did what it was supposed to do: crisped up quickly and encased the fish to protect it while cooking in super hot oil and result in it coming out of the pan as just ‘melt in the mouth’ delicious seafood.
So, in answer to the opening question “how far would I go for a really really good feed of fish and chips?” The answer is 900 kilometres round trip as it turned out. We got the craving again this week for a feed of fish and chips and so set off for Akaroa. Actually it’s a good thousand k’s when you take in a bit of running around. Throw in a bit of accommodation and, to many people, that would possibly seem an excessively expensive meal. But look at this parcel; I can just see your mouth-watering.
And knowing what you would say about a 900km return journey for fish and chips, I began to think of all the places I might want to go in the world and what I might like to experience. I roughly calculated how many tens of thousands of dollars it might cost me to buy a souvenir T Shirt at Niagara Falls, to take a photo of the Colosseum in Rome and to watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Where, amongst all these experiences, would I put eating that parcel of fish and chips, washed down with a beer from the local Four Square and looking out onto that view? To be honest I would put it well up there and no contest for best value for money, even with 900kms driving. Then just to show that I can think on my feet, we actually had two meals there, so that really halved the cost on a per meal basis. By the way, that was an excellent sausage as well, no doubt hand-made by the little butcher shop around the corner.
As I pondered all this, while the water lapped in harmony with my thoughts, and as I noted saw the very modest sprinkling of tourists around me I began to muse: if the goal of Tourism New Zealand is to encourage overseas visitors to travel beyond the gateway cities to experience the essential New Zealand, then why, oh why, do they not use the Akaroa fish and chip shop as a poster icon for a NZ Tourism campaign? Why do we not share this very special experience with the world and attract hundreds of thousands of overseas visitors to this little secret place of ours? Then I thought, nah f*ck them, let’s keep this one to ourselves.
FOOTNOTE: Joy to my heart. After three decades of being out of the family, the Best Cafe in Lower Stuart Street has come back to the family through Jessica Marks, the daughter of my cousin, and her partner Brent. The traditional old school fish, oysters and chips has returned. Prepared and cooked the way fish and chips are supposed to be. The old family batter recipe. I did happen to be up at Akaroa recently so went back to try out their fish and chips again and, with complete absence of bias, I am delighted to announce that the Best Cafe of Dunedin once again is the best fish and chip shop in the land.