Ben Lerwill heads to Shetland to seek out the best fish and chip shop in the UK
Wondering where to find the best fish and chip shop in the UK? Easy. If you’re looking at a map of Great Britain, trace your finger to the uppermost tip of Scotland. Then head around 200 miles further north to the treeless, windswept archipelago of Shetland. Pinpoint the little bayside settlement of Brae — almost twice as close to Bergen in Norway as it is to Edinburgh — and you’re there. And if this seems a long way to come for lunch, don’t fret. You’re unlikely to leave disappointed, or indeed hungry.
Britain’s love affair with fish and chips is believed to have begun in the 19th century with the rise of North Sea trawl-fishing and the spread of the rail network — which allowed fresh catches to be transported quickly to the cities. Worthy on-plate support comes courtesy of a small army of sides and condiments, but it remains at its core a simple, two-ingredient meal.
You’ll notice a vast difference, however, between the dish you might be served at a dubiously priced London pub and the more authentic portion you’ll get at Frankie’s Fish & Chips in Brae. There’s good reason, you see, why the country’s northernmost chippy is also, as of last January, officially its best. “Attention to detail,” smiles Valerie Johnson, part of the family that’s owned the remote takeaway/restaurant since it opened in 2008. She shows me a photo of the black-tie National Fish & Chip Awards ceremony, at which they were named Best Independent Takeaway of the Year. “It’s about getting everything right, from sea to plate,” she says.
In the case of Frankie’s, the journey between sea and plate isn’t especially lengthy. This is very much haddock territory, and the fish they fry comes in daily from a sustainable stock in the waters just offshore (you’ll see the name of the boat that brought in that particular morning’s haul chalked on a board). The view from the kitchen window, meanwhile, is of the inlet where they source their mussels. Island-caught crab and scallops are also on the menu, as is Shetland beef lasagne.
After some deliberation (oh, for two stomachs), I opt for the speciality: large haddock and chips, with sides of homemade mushy peas and tartare sauce. The fish arrives flaked in great ridges of batter and tastes clean and meaty, its flavors brought out by a squeeze of lemon. The chips, meanwhile, are thick and have just the right amount of salty crunch. It’s not the sort of meal that health professionals would recommend for daily consumption — but by heck, I’d be happy if it was.
“There was never really a masterplan,” Valerie tells me. “Frankie’s only came about because my husband Gary was fed up with making a 50-mile round trip every time we wanted fish and chips.” Frankie, incidentally, is the name of the family’s late West Highland terrier. Here’s to him, and here’s to Gary having got cheesed off with travelling so far for a meal.
It takes time to reach Shetland, but the journey is well worth it. Its wide glens and puffin-nested cliffs make it a major draw for hikers and bird-watchers. And yes, it’s some place for a fish supper too.