On Fish Fingers
The other night, I sat down after a long day and ate my dinner on the couch in front of my television. It’s not something that I do often – I’m a horrendously messy eater and much prefer the sturdy comfort of a table beneath my plate – but it was one of those days where my brain was so frazzled that all I wanted was to do was relax and let crap reality TV wash over me as I ate.
I’m telling you all this because what I decided to eat while catching up with Below Deck Mediterranean was a fish finger sandwich. Was my dinner choice inspired by the nautical theme of the programme? Perhaps. But it was the first time I’d made myself a fish finger sandwich in a very long time. And, boy, was it spectacular.
My teeth snipped through the squidgy white bread, punching an impact silhouette into that slice of Warbuton’s Toastie and exchanging pleasantries with a liberal squeezing of sriracha along the way before descending right into the flaky heart of that crisp, scalding hot phalange of fish. Mildly fishy and just the right level of bland, the fish finger is one of the most nostalgic food products that I can think of. Fish fingers once accounted for 10% of all fish eaten in Britain and even David Beckham has had an attempt at launching his very own range of fish fingers.
The very first recipe for fish fingers in Britain appeared in the Tamworth Herald on 30th June 1900. Which, if my maths is right, makes fish fingers around 122 years old. I’ll admit that the original recipe was a bit different to the processed fish fingers you’ll find in the frozen aisle today (it contained minced parsley and cold cooked rice, for one) but it’s also not completely far off either. If you were to serve someone in 1900 one of our 2022 fish fingers, I don’t think they’d struggle to recognise it as some form of cuboid fish cake. Unlike, say, a packet of Sour Patch Kids which I’m fairly certain would instantly kill an Edwardian.
Although homemade fish cakes and fish fingers existed beforehand, Birds Eye’s fish finger production began in 1955 and revolutionized the game. Clarence Birdseye’s innovative fast freezing food process, which has now become standard practice, meant that food could be flash frozen immediately after being caught or harvested in order to preserve freshness. Frozen beef burgers and vegetables came first but it was Birds Eye’s fish fingers that captured the hearts and stomachs of a nation. According to the ‘history’ section of the official Birds Eye website, more than 15 billion fish fingers have been sold in the UK since then. I’ve probably accounted for about a million of those sales myself.
Although Birds Eye has been around for what seems like forever, the brand hasn’t rested on its laurels or allowed itself to get stuck in the mud. One of the main reasons that Birds Eye launched their Alaska Pollock fish fingers in 2007 was to reduce pressure on cod stocks. Birds Eye is, unsurprisingly, a trendsetter in the fish fingers sphere and that ethical switch to pollock was a move that ended up being mirrored by a lot of other retailers.
As a result, most fish fingers sold today are surprisingly sustainable. A study conducted by the Marine Conservation Society in 2018 found that 85% of the fish in 48 supermarket own-brand and branded fingers came from sustainable sources.
Birds Eye has even recently launched “fishless fingers” as a plant-based alternative to their iconic product. They’re not terrible, the rice protein used to mimic the flakiness of fish almost pulls it off, but they’re not the same. Eating those faux fish fingers is a lot like watching a film where you know one of the actors wasn’t the director’s first choice. There’s something slightly off about the whole thing and a soullessness to the proceedings. It’s the soul of a fish finger that the innumerable gastro pubs selling posh fish finger sandwiches around the country fail to capture. By focussing too much on trying to make the fish finger something it’s not, they lose sight of what makes it special in the first place.
In contrast, the fish finger sandwich (or rather the “pollock fritter” sandwich) I had at 40 Maltby Street in Bermondsey last year was possibly the most perfectly balanced sandwich I’ve ever had. The flavour of the fish, lightly battered and devilishly crisp, still came through in each bite and played wonderfully alongside aioli, roasted peppers, and capers in its just-firm-enough focaccia sheath. Too many fish fingers sandwiches falter by trying to be too posh yet 40 Maltby Street proved that a fish finger can be a high-end ingredient if it’s made well and treated with respect.
Someone who knows how to treat a fish finger is Nigella Lawson. Nigella Lawson’s recipe for fish finger bhorta practically sent the world into a spiral when it debuted on an episode of BBC Two’s Nigella's Cook, Eat, Repeat. I was personally enamoured by the simple fact that Nigella was willing to elevate the fish finger as a legitimate recipe ingredient. Some were a bit less pleased.
“The fish finger dish was an insult to fish fingers and human beings,” wrote one particularly peeved person on Facebook. But, even taking that online Karen’s anger that Nigella would dare to add spices to an unspiced fish into account, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about. It certainly wasn’t what I’d call an “insult” to fish fingers. If anything, it was a celebration of all that makes them great. The recipe is an inventive use of fish fingers as an ingredient, underlining the fish finger’s mild flavour and nascent potential to be used as a contributing part of a meal rather than always having the pressure of being the meal in and of itself.
They’re easy to take for granted, and all too often overlooked, but fish fingers are what we turn to when times are tough. Sales of all brands of fish fingers rose 21% to £4.5million in the first three months of 2020 with around 250,000 more packets of fish fingers being bought compared with the same period the year before. When you’re in need of something tasty and don’t want to think about measurements or detailed instructions, there’s nothing better than a fish finger plucked straight from the oven.