IT’S a fish supper for us tonight but Food and Drink is not going downmarket.
In the world of fried fish there is no higher pinnacle of perfection in Yorkshire than the Magpie Café of Whitby.
It’s in The Star’s catchment area by extension, as many of our readers go to Whitby for a holiday and join the long queue which snakes along the pavement and up the steps to get into the Magpie on the harbourfront. As did we.
This is a county which knows a good plate of cod and chips when it sees it so the Magpie’s fame has spread throughout the whole of Yorkshire.
And when TV chef Rick Stein, a man who knows his fish, dropped by for supper he raved about it so much he devoted most of an episode of one of his series to the café.
And with that the Magpie’s fame went national and the queues grew longer. You can even buy your own mini Magpie as a china ornament. Eat your heart out Harry Ramsden.
The Magpie, on two floors, is a temple to fish. It is the only place I know where the menu offers tasting notes on the 15 kinds of fish it serves.
There is cod, haddock, plaice, skate, monkfish, wild sea bass, turbot if you want to push the boat out, coley and pollock if you don’t, as well as John Dory, gurnard, hake, ling, mackerel, and skate, squid and salmon.
You can have it poached or grilled, under a bed of potatoes in a fish pie, smothered in cream sauce or as a bouillabaisse in a soup.
But when, like us, you only get to Whitby once in a couple of years you want to sample the glory that is cod. Fried.
In recent years the Magpie has spawned a takeaway chippie next door. Earlier in the week I had the haddock, sitting among the seagulls, and it was lovely.
A few days later I joined the queue in a drizzle which seemed to dampen no-one’s spirits. People chatted about whether they’d been before and what delights newcomers could expect.
Cod and chips costs £11.95 for a regular portion, £9.95 for small, and the menu advises that these are ‘Yorkshire portions.’ Mushy peas are £1.50.
The entire meal is perfection. The golden batter is crisp and dry, in a froth of waves and curls, like a choppy sea caught in a photograph.
There is no mystery ingredient, no beer, in this batter, just plain and self-raising flours, baking powder and chilled water.
Inside this brittle casing the fish has steamed and breaks into big flakes on the tines of your fork. The flesh is firm, the taste milky with a slight acidic edge.
The chips, which like the fish have been fried in beef dripping, are pale. They are floppy like chip shop chips but not as limp. Like the batter they are not greasy and inside are fluffy.
As if this is not enough the surprise comes with the mushy peas. Forget every portion of mushy peas you have ever eaten, all those tins of Technicolor bright green stuff you may have bought – this is heaven on a plate.
The peas have largely broken up and the texture is somewhere between silky and grainy. They taste of peas but this is not the fresh greenness of just-podded peas. It is beyond that.
The aftertaste is not sweet nor salt nor sour but I call it savoury. The Japanese have a word for it: umami.
When I first encountered the Magpie’s mushies a few years ago I was convinced they were made with stock, so rich was the taste.
Not at all. I was shown the recipe.
Wash and drain 400g of marrowfat peas several times then leave to steep in plenty of water overnight with a teaspoon of bicarb.
Next day, wash and drain well, cover with fresh water, add a teaspoon each of salt and sugar (the Magpie adds a touch of green colouring), bring to the boil, simmer for up to an hour until soft, skimming off any scum. Now add shredded fresh mint if you’ve a mind. Either way you should have got a dish of ambrosia for just a few pence.
The Magpie has been in the same family since 1954. Alison McKenzie Slater took over the business in 1990 in partnership with Ian Robson, from her parents, Ian and Sheila McKenzie. They in turn had inherited it from Alison’s grandparents, Clifford and Gladys Barber.
The Magpie is still pleasantly old fashioned, with white walls, black beamed ceilings, and creaking staircases but modernity has crept in with the waitresses’ electronic notepads and the specials on video screens.
What has not changed is the quality of the cooking. It’s a joy that an everyday dish such as fish, chips and peas can taste so wonderful.
14 Pier Road, Whitby YO21 3PU.
Tel: 01947 602058.
Open daily 11.30am-9pm. Limited bookings (ring ahead for parties). Credit cards. Licensed. Disabled access. Street and public car parks. Children’s menu.
Opening hours, etc
My star ratings (out of five):