“Batter, tatter, fish, tatter, batter,” is the succinct description of the construction of a Sheffield fishcake, seen as a geological diagram. It’s a sort of fish sandwich, a piece of cod or haddock between two slices of potato, swathed in batter and deep fried.
Some insist on calling it a Yorkshire fishcake on account of it also being sold in Halifax or Huddersfield but Sheffield is the only Northern town to give its name to this speciality. Yorkshire has its pudding and mushy peas so let this be Sheffield’s national dish!
I am not sure whether it’s dying out in the area’s chippies or is still holding on. The three or four chip shops nearest me don’t sell it. In Barnsley they think a fishcake is mashed fish and potato with parsley, as does most of the rest of the country.
It’s not hard to see how the Sheffield fishcake came about. A chippie decided this was the best way to make use of fish trimmings. But why is it a strictly regional thing: surely the same thought should have applied in the rest of the country. Perhaps only a Yorkshireman can turn (almost) nowt into owt.
I have always been fascinated by Sheffield fishcakes. I grew up in Derby where my father ran a chippie in complete ignorance of this delicacy some 40 miles north. I’d had a scallop, a slice of potato in batter, but that was less than half way to the real thing.
Nor had Bruce Payne, owner of Seafayre chippie and fish restaurant on Charles Street, Sheffield. He’s from Leicester and had to be shown how to make them when he married into Sheffield’s Pearce dynasty of chippies. The Sheffield fishcake is popular: when on Castle Market he once sold 224 on a Friday lunchtime. “I thought they would be as popular here but it’s a different clientele,” he says.
Bruce doesn’t use a slice of fish but trimmings as he says it would otherwise be difficult to seat the fish and potato together snugly. He has to be careful with his choice of spuds. “When varieties change I thought a baking potato would be suitable but it just goes mushy.” Nor does he parboil the potatoes. And “I always use cod because this is a cod shop,” he adds.
At just £1.45 it’s a particularly tasty and comforting dish and well worth ordering, with or without the chips.
The Sheffield or Yorkshire fishcake is a working man or woman’s snack but there’s no reason why it can’t be poshed up, as it is at the three-star George Hotel in Hathersage. Sous chef Steven Sumpner may come from Basingstoke but “I’ve always known about Yorkshire fishcakes because my father, who is from Leeds, loves them
“I remember my dad showing our local fish and chip shop how to make them so when we had our fish n chips nights he could have a Yorkshire fish cake. It was a big deal to him being a Leeds boy.”
Steven, whose own favourite fishcake from a chippie is from Four Lanes on Leppings Lane, Hillsborough, produced mini fishcakes for a special occasion at the hotel recently but it often goes on the menu because “it’s homely and rustic.”
His method is to parboil the potatoes so it allows for thick slices of spud which can be cooked at the same rate as the fish and batter: if he used them raw the rest would be overcooked. And because it is a hotel he can use tail ends of fillets.
The batter, too, gets special attention. “My recipe always has wine vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. This gives the batter an extra crispy and light texture with a nice punch of vinegar. I season with rock salt and it really gives that feeling you have drenched your fish in vinegar and salt but you still have a crispy batter!”
Steven’s miniature versions are extremely tasty little morsels with extra oomph in the batter. I enjoyed them.
Of course, one man’s fishcake is another man’s fritter, pattie, scallop or rissole so the Sheffield or Yorkshire fishcake might exist somewhere else in the world under another name. I have heard of a double decker fishcake with a layer of peas as well as fish and spuds and there is the famous mushy pea fritter at Two Steps on Sharrowvale Road.
Finally, here’s Yorkshire chef Brian Turner’s version, as seen on YouTube. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xcj8bp_F9Uk
*Seafayre has now closed but Bruce continues frying (and serving Sheffield fishcakes) at the Market Chippie on The Moor Market. This is for the benefit of Peterborough FC fans accessing this site via http://www.londonroad.net