Five go mad for fish and chips
Lisa Hilton enjoys a seaside hike, a bracing swim and lashings of warming tea in West Sussex
This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Simplicity, thought Evelyn Waugh, was an overrated quality. Questioning whether “the whole business of civilised taste is not a fraud put upon us by shops and restaurants”, he nonetheless concluded that delicacies are not merely luxuries which we have been taught to prefer because they are exclusive, but “a far from negligible consolation for some of the assaults and deceptions by which civilisation seeks to rectify the balance of good fortune”.
Waugh would have been unimpressed by his friend Diana Mitford’s concoction of a frugal beach lunch on the Sussex coast during the period when her in-laws, the Guinness family, were building Bailiffscourt, their house at Climping. Before the astonished eyes of the company, the Hon Miss Mitford fried eggs on a portable stove. “I’ve never heard of such a thing, it’s too clever,” marvelled Mrs Guinness. Little has happened gastronomically in Climping since, but the café in the car park is reputed to do a good crab sandwich.
It’s a peculiar place, Climping. Witchy. A curiously etiolated village on the border of East and West Sussex between Bognor and Brighton, stretching flatly from Ford open prison to the blank tan of the Channel. The beach is bordered by the storm-tossed concrete remnants of World War II batteries, improbably mangled.
A whitewashed, boarded-up pub lends an air of cosy desolation and nasty things have certainly happened in the woods. Naturally, after the hottest summer England has ever known, it was tipping with freezing rain, and the café was shut.
Bailiffscourt is now a very charming hotel, but we were too scruffy for tea with Diana’s ghost so we set off through the icy mist to Littlehampton.
Like many British seaside towns, Littlehampton is encased in a penumbra of joyless sin. We staggered through the torrent past an unusual number of funeral directors into the grateful vitality of the East Beach Café. Much has been written about this extraordinary building, constructed by the brilliant Thomas Heatherwick in 2005. Externally, the overlapping steel-shutter construction gives it the appearance of a hermit crab, hunkering down for shelter amongst the pebbles, an unobtrusive curiosity which conceals an astonishing architectural sleight of hand.
Inside, the space seems to double in size, opening into a fluted white arch, a stripped-down play on an eighteenth-century grotto. I thought I couldn’t love it more until I looked up the studio construction notes and discovered the Eeyore-ish observation that the “bleak and exposed” site for the café was further challenged by the presence of a high-pressure sewage line.
The daytime menu is divided between seaside staples — a fish burger with tartare sauce, hake with new potatoes, and more elegant offerings, such as crab linguini with n’duja and spring onion. The latter looked marvellous, but after pots of tea to thaw out we began with tiger prawns in chilli and garlic and soda bread, then fish and chips with mushy peas.
Tiger prawns can be a dubious treat — a former delicacy which has become unethically ubiquitous — but these were so delicious, their generous sauce so perfectly balanced and the soda bread so expansively absorbent that we decided they were certainly sustainably sourced.
I’m not sure whether tea with fish and chips falls on the simple or civilised side of the spectrum but after tramping over several miles of slimy pebbles it’s brilliantly evocative — all the damp, sandy chill of English summer childhoods recalled in a single glorious, scalding bite.
The batter was crisp and fluffy, the chips were the proper crisp kind that call for drenching in Sarson’s vinegar, the peas a bright, bouncing green with just the right equilibrium between bite and soothing goo. The tartare was spiked with proper nubbles of cornichon and caper, ideal for smashing into robustly-flaking fishcakes.
Salted caramel tart with clotted cream sounded Mitfordly divine but we felt obliged to take a bracing swim before yet more tea and an extremely acceptable Bakewell tart from the café’s kiosk, which did away with the last of Climping’s malevolence.
Lunch at the East Beach Café is definitely a compensation for the tribulations of adulthood. Huddled under Mr Heatherwick’s awning in our streaming cagoules, salt brattling on our skin, chomping through tooth-wincingly thick icing and buttery almond crumbs, we were filled with Blyton-esque glee.
What makes the East Beach Café work so well is the combination of its bravura setting and the humility of the kitchen. The building is so extraordinary that they could get away with deep-fried cardboard. Conversely, the architecture might incite over-ambitious, overpriced foamy fiddling.
Instead, they offer exactly the food you want to eat at the seaside: breezy, jaunty flavours that sparkle even when the weather doesn’t. On Friday and Saturday evenings you can have dinner, and there’s a short, jolly breakfast menu. Deft, accomplished cooking which is truly sophisticated in its confident simplicity. Civilised indeed.
East Beach Café, Sea Road, Littlehampton, West Sussex BN17 5GB; 01903 731 903
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