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Chip butties - the north/south divide

"Hard liquor and soft drugs aside, the chip butty is the most reliable way we human beings have to mentally shut out this harsh world and, momentarily, transport ourselves to a happier, more innocent place."

Tony Naylor - The Guardian

Sort of revolting isn't it? I know yesterday I was intent on proving that British food was better than people gave it credit for, but maybe this is a step too far?

I'm writing about it because it's a lucky dip - from Nigel Slater's truly wonderful book Real Fast Food. It's actually the book that really launched his career and is almost not a recipe book. Some of the 'recipes' are just vague ideas, some are mini essays, some are indeed actual recipes. And there are no pictures - but if you haven't got it then I urge you to go out and buy it - it's still in print.

In lockdown Jay Rayner of The Guardian wrote a series of articles on 'classic' cookbooks and this was one of them. He said of it that it

"introduced the world to a particular voice and sensibility; to an endlessly encouraging approach not to the blunt mechanics of cooking, but to the joys of eating and living well. It ripples with good taste." Jay Rayner

and Nigella chips in with: "He explains which bits matter and which bits don’t."

And just to show you how simple good food is Jay Rayner gives two examples - well he gives more, but here are two of them:

"Courtesy of his recipe for funghi ripieni I discovered life was not too short to stuff a mushroom, if that stuffing involves fried onions, garlic, salted anchovies and breadcrumbs." Jay Rayner

"I filled a bowl with raspberries (from frozen) covered them with a duvet of mascarpone and caster sugar and shoved it under a hot grill. It will be my new “aren’t I clever and don’t I wear it lightly” dinner party dessert."

Jay Rayner

The book is absolutely packed with things like this, and I really don't use it enough. It also shows what a brilliant and entertaining writer he is, because interspersed amongst the recipes are general mini essays, and not so mini essays, on things - like potatoes, from which section the chip butties come.

My lucky dip page actually has three potential post subjects - potato salad being one of them and indeed I will do that soon. Today though I am concentrating on the chip butties. But - hold on a bit longer for that, for first there is one of those mini essays - this one on Jersey Royals.

Jersey Royals are something we just don't get here in Australia. Any kind of 'new' potatoes really and it is something that I truly miss. This is why:

"In early spring you may spot in smart greengrocers, tiny little new potatoes in wooden crates. They are the first Jersey Royals, as opposed to the more pedestrian Jersey Whites. They are recognisable by their flaky skins and kidney shapes. You will be asked to part with a king's ransom for them, but they are worth it. Bring them home, carefully wipe off the sand without tearing the papery skins, and put them into boiling salted water. Cook them till tender, about 10-15 minutes, then drain them and toss with a frugal amount of unsalted butter and a handful of chopped fresh parsley. For the first of the season I am not sure they need any other accompaniment than a glass of wine."

Immediately following on from this we have chip butties. You could say, 'from the sublime to the ridiculous'. This too is not really a recipe and I reproduce it in full.

"Chip butties

I love chip butties, But there are rules.

  • The bread should be white and thick sliced. The 'plastic' type is more suitable than real 'baker's bread' because it absorbs the melting butter more readily.

  • The chips should be fried in dripping, not oil, and sprinkled with salt and malt - yes, I said malt - vinegar

  • The sandwich should drip with butter

Good eaten when slightly drunk, and the perfect antidote to the char-grilled-with-balsamic-vinegar-and-shaved-Parmesan school of cookery. And so frightfully common."

Yes indeed it is 'common' - but as a southern English person - I think it is a northern thing. I actually had never heard of chip butties until I went to university in the Midlands, and encountered a lot of northerners. 'Northern' by the way, to a southerner, and probably to the northerners too, is anyone born not very far north of London - maybe north of Cambridge, with the exception of East Anglia which is a bit ambivalent when it comes to the north/south divide. You will find on Wikipedia and suchlike sites, that in the south it is called a chip sarnie. Well I think that's not true. Jamie Oliver - a southerner - does indeed refer to sarnies (sandwiches), but it's not an expression I remember and look as you may, Jamie does not have a recipe for a chip sarnie. Now possibly that's because it's really, really not a healthy dish - and these days he is into health - but he does have recipes for various other pretty unhealthy and British working class food. Not the chip butty though. No that is a northern thing. Butty is from a Yorkshire term for butter by the way - which reinforces Nigel's stipulation that the chip butty should be dripping with butter. However, even though 'butty' is a Yorkshire term the general opinion seems to think it is a Lancashire thing - and certainly my Lancashire university friends were certainly at least aware of them if not fans. Mind you the Sheffield United Football Team made 'The Greasy chip butty song' their official song in the 50s and they're Yorkshire.

Historically it is said to have been born in Oldham (that's Lancashire) in 1863 at the market stall of - 'Britain’s second-ever fish and chip shop' owned by a Mr. Lees, who peddled his chip barms there. But there are lots of other origin stories - all northern though, maybe because of the proximity to Ireland and therefore potatoes, and the industrial production of chips.

So the chip butty is a polarising dish - if you can really call it a dish - not only north/south, but also Yorkshire/Lancashire - oh yes, that exists too - not to mention that it is fundamentally working class. A symbol indeed of working class pride, maybe even rebellion, because surely they must know in this day and age that this is not healthy and really a bit crass? No 'posh' Englishman, I'm sure would be seen dead eating one, and anyway they probably wouldn't know what you are talking about. Mind you this picture of Edinburgh chef, Tom Kitchin, tucking into his guilty pleasure perhaps belies that contention. He is however, sinning, in that his is made from a roll not white bread.

I say it's crass, but actually I have never tasted one. Now I am from a pretty much working class background - the bit of the working class that teeters on the edge of middle-class. There are subtle distinctions in the British class system. However, the desire to be middle-class part of me has a somewhat snobbish attitude to this particular thing. Which is sort of strange. Because I love fish and chips, toad in the hole, and other such working class dishes. Maybe it's simply that I did not know of its existence. I am also sort of conforming to the notion that the North is working class and the South middle-class. Upper class inhabits almost another planet. Those notions are, of course, sweeping generalisations. There are plenty of working class people in the south and always have been, and plenty of middle-class self-made men in the north. But the working class of the south do not, I'm sure, eat chip butties. So what do they eat that is distinctly southern? Jellied eels - no more surely? Cockles and whelks? Cornish pasties - but that's the west country which is a whole other thing. So interesting that for such a small country there still exist regional and class distinctions - and probably in the whole of Europe too. The only good thing is that these days, thanks to education, which whilst not being perfect, has enabled the movement from one class to another. Somewhat easier than for a southerner to become a northerner though, (and vice versa) no matter how many years you may live there. There is an interesting article by Sam Hancock on the Vice website which ends with this assertion from one of his 'experts':

“You're acting out your Britishness even by having an opinion about the chip butty.” Professor Rebecca Earle

Do I have an opinion? No I don't think so. I just find it interesting.

Back to the true chip butty though. As well as Nigel Slater, who is from Wolverhampton (Staffordshire - the Midlands - another regional distinction), but not working class as his father owned a factory, Tony Naylor of The Guardian writes a whole article on what a chip butty should and should not be. He adds a few more rules to Nigel Slater's. The first being that there should be no 'extras' - like HP or tomato sauce. And you will see lots of pictures of chip butties dripping with tomato sauce in particular, so obviously not everyone adheres to that one.

"the settled elements of the chip butty – melting butter, hot oil, warm soft potato, gummy bread, salt, vinegar – should elide so smoothly that this interaction of fats and carbs, sodium and acidity, should be almost imperceptible to the conscious mind. The ingredients should form a totality far greater than the sum of its parts. To bring sauces into this finely tuned interplay is to introduce a rogue element that, for all it seems an exciting new dimension to your sandwich, ruins it."

A bit like adding tomato sauce to your finely crafted and delicate Elizabeth David gnocchi di ricotta perhaps.

Anything extra is not classic and has become something else, says Tony Naylor - it's that old authenticity thing is it not? Do people mess with the chip butty I wondered. Well Tony Naylor gives one example from a pub review by Jay Rayner - a Cornish crab chip butty:

"a palm-sized, golden-glazed bun, filled with mayonnaise-bound white crabmeat, the crunch of lightly pickled samphire and, finally, a fistful of still hot, still crisp chips." Jay Rayner

- although Naylor describes it as a "mayo-bound crab, samphire and chip bun which "has deviated so wildly from the original concept that, surely, it barely supports its listing on the menu as a 'Cornish crab chip butty'"

Still on Cornwall in Padstow - as far away from the north as you can get really - Paul Ainsworth in his posh restaurant serves Granny Ainsworth's chip butty which is:

"made with triple cooked chips on toasted sourdough, has an extra eggy mayonnaise and is topped with aged parmesan." Sam Hancock -

I had a quick look online, but actually did not find many variations other than a whole lot of burgers, which have indeed strayed a long way from the original. The simplest was this one - which was really more like a cheese toasty with chips added to the already unhealthy mix. The toasting of the bread is really a step much too far away from the original concept to call it it a chip butty I think.

But back to Tony Naylor's extra rules. With respect to the bread he has an additional rule that dictates that you should just have one slice of bread, folded in half:

"a chip butty should be made with one uncut slice of bread half-stuffed with chips and folded in two, briefly and lightly squashed with your palm, and eaten. Heap. Fold. Squash. Repeat."

The reason being that if you don't do this then the filling oozes out everywhere - which is why you shouldn't have a bun or similar.

Then there's the chips - not french fries - good thickish chip shop chips:

"The perfect chips for a chip butty are lightly fried, slightly pale chips that, having steamed a little too long in their paper wrapping on the journey home, are an enchanting mix of softly yielding potato and chewy caramelised edges that, liberally salted and doused in vinegar, seem to be almost limply giving up on life as you pile them on to a slice of bread."

There are a few things that make this whole topic of the chip butty so interesting to me. All of that cultural, social studies, historical aspect is the main one and I have certainly only scratched the surface. There are obviously whole libraries of material to be read on the British class/regional structure and by implication that of other countries too. And how that is reflected in food. I have always said that you write about food you write about life really, and the chip butty amply demonstrates this.

Then there is the fact that this very humble, even vaguely repulsive foodstuff can produce such entertaining writing. Another British characteristic is that they can mock themselves at the same time as expressing pride in unlikely and, alien to others, maybe even derisive, subjects.

I no longer make chips so am not going to give it a go anytime soon. If I ever get to England, and England's north, perhaps I shall seek one out.

And I should say that the 'u' in 'butties' is pronounce the northern way - sort of like a shortened 'oo'.

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