Shocking, The Price Of Spuds These Days (6 February 1976)
What do you think of the price of potatoes, missus? Shocking, isn’t it? I don’t wonder you don’t see kids playing with potato guns these days. The cost of the ammunition would be prohibitive.
I am not a very old man. Just going on for 68, in fact. But I remember visiting my grandmother as a small boy and her putting a halfpenny in my hand and saying: “Go to the fish shop for a ha’p’orth of chips – and tell him to put some scraps in.” This meant that I was to get my due halfpennyworth of chips and batter scraps in addition.
For years and years afterwards a fish and a pennorth cost only three pence in Yorkshire. Yet a competent frier made a good living. Some made more than a good living. I had a relative who bought run-down fish and chip shops, worked them up for a couple of years, then sold them as thriving businesses – until his wife grew tired of the constant removals.
When we first came to Bletchley my wife thought so little of the local fish and chips that she fried our own thereafter. I am told that Yorkshire is now better known in America for its fish and chips than for its pudding, and that an enterprising American has started a chain of Yorkshire fish and chip restaurants there. I am also told that American tourists now include York as much for its fish and chips as for its Minster, its city walls and gates and its railway museum.
The BBC’s “Blue Peter” programme recently featured a visit to one highly popular Yorkshire fish and chip restaurant. This is Ramsden’s, at Guiseley, where the road from the Dales parts into one for Leeds and the other for Bradford.
It seats 200 at small tables for F and C eaten in style with tea and bread and butter. There is also an off-sales department for taking away and also for eating at tables on the terrace. A large car park completes the set-up. I have never seen the place without queues for both departments.
So what is the secret? Well, “Blue Peter” showed a teaspoonful of pale powder being added to each tray of batter. They said it was Ramsden’s secret and made the batter crisper. That may be so. But it does not explain why there are so many smaller restaurants and shops in Yorkshire whose offerings, I would say, are just as good.
No, I would say that the secret, if it can be called one, is that all frying is done in dripping, not oil, with a strong preference for haddock and with strict regard to temperature.
Nobody ever cooked anything in oil in my time in Yorkshire. Actually we had a very small bottle of olive oil at home, but it was kept for dealing with hard wax in the ears and that sort of thing. As for cooking in it, or in anything like it – bah!
As to the pudding, I don’t know how this came to be associated with Yorkshire in particular. For many generations both the pudding and the best way of making it have been known throughout the country.
Thus KA Savage, writing of old times at Little Horwood, says: “On Sunday morning two of us made the long journey right up the village to the bakehouse, one carrying a huge greased baking tin and large joint, and the other a can of batter.
“Almost everyone in the village took their Sunday joint to be cooked like this. The Yorkshire pudding underneath the meat was just too good to describe.” I bet it was, too.
Nor is the custom of eating it as a separate course before the meat exclusively northern. A Newton friend who was bred in Sussex tells me they had it that way down there.
We also had nearly as many tripe shops as F and C shops. Hence the musical jingle: “Does your mother take in washing? No, she keeps a tripe shop.” These shops sold tripe of all varieties – thick and thin, large and small honeycomb, and a brownish one called elder among them.
Most of it was sold not for cooking, but for eating cold, with salt and vinegar, at the shop, or at home or on the way home. The shop also sold trotters and cowheel for eating cold. Cowheel was my favourite of them all.
And if you ask how I could stomach all this, I shall ask how you can stomach oysters, jellied eels, cockles and all that. We shall be on mutual ground, however, in appreciation of the Whitby prawns which the Italians call scampi.
Then there was parkin. This bore no resemblance to the biscuit-like so-called parkin pigs which are sold in shops. It was more like ginger cake, only much nicer. Three or four inches thick, it was baked in a tin about a foot square. Its main ingredients, I think, were black treacle, ginger, and very coarse oatmeal. And, like Christmas cake, it was never eaten until it had “come again”.
There was also a thing called either oatcake or havercake, I forget which. Very thin, brittle and shapeless, it was hung from the kitchen ceiling and callers were invited to break off a bit. Children needed no inviting, if they could reach it from a chair or table top.
But to get back to the formerly humble potato, now King Potato, we used to enjoy potato cakes and I expect you did, too.
What is not so well remembered is how housewives used to add potato to the flour in the making of bread. They did it because it was cheap and also because it helped the bread to keep. So did village bakers around here.
They wouldn’t be able to afford that now, supposing that they themselves still existed.
Boiled, fried, baked or roasted, potatoes have vied with bread itself as the staff of life for the past two or three hundred years.
Which makes you wonder what people ate before Sir Walter Raleigh or somebody like him first brought them to this country from abroad. However, we shall soon learn – if the price keeps on rising as it has these past few months. It will be a new and salutary experience for most of us. Especially those who, like myself, have never had to bother about keeping our weight down.