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As late as the 1980s, it had been not unusual to encounter older persons bemused by the thought of rectilinear breaded seafood. “Who ever saw a fish with fingers?” your grandad might scoff. Not because he was a foodie (no-one was in 1986) but merely because he could remember a period when food didn’t come pre-packed, frozen and reshaped in order that it bore no visual resemblance to its animal origin.
Grandad was fighting a losing battle. Thirty years on, in this supposed nation of food lovers, fish fingers remain wildly popular. Sales have wobbled recently, but we eat a lot more than 1.5m fish fingers a day and, according to advertise behemoth Birds Eye, 75% folks first taste fish in the sort of fish fingers.
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Fish fingers were once things you grew out of but that’s no more true. This 4am fallback for drunk students is currently a staple on pub menus – gussied-up with handmade goujons and tartare sauce, perhaps, but yet testament to the actual fact that for almost all their relative blandness (“No bones, no waste, no smell, no fuss,” was Birds Eye’s launch strapline), these crispy cod pieces are – particularly if slapped between two slices of bread – an enduring balm for the soul.
Not that making an excellent fish-finger butty in the home is easy. You might feel that professional production (introduced to the united kingdom in the 1950s by US frozen-foods pioneer Clarence Birdseye) would create a uniform fish finger. But no. At every stage, from the fish itself (usually cut from huge frozen blocks of whole fillets) to the “enrobing” (the technical term for covering fish in batter and breadcrumbs), numerous tiny details impact on quality.
Which of the supermarket brands certainly are a catch? That ought to you throw back? And where does Birds Eye rank nowadays?
Birds Eye … ‘meagre cod within’ Photograph: PR
Birds Eye, 12 cod fish fingers, 336g, £2.50
Has Captain Birdseye been hammering the rum? Because for all your packaging’s rhetorical zeal (“Happy families guaranteed”) and its own trumpeting of cod’s health advantages, these rather withered-looking fingers neglect to dazzle. Only 8.5cm by 2.5cm – ie basic, primary-school size – their crumb packs a decent, satisfyingly dry crunch, however the meagre cod within (58% of the contents, where most contain 60%) lacks any real solidity and heft. Mostly, it burns up toothlessly; a sweet, slippery, shy presence. On a sandwich, these become an anonymous mush.
Aldi… ‘gloopy’. Photograph: PR
Aldi, Northern Catch 10 cod fish fingers, 300g, £1.19
Like Birds Eye’s, these standard-size fingers are made of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) approved sustainable cod, which is among the few positives to report. The fish filling looks apologetically thin (58% of the complete, roughly 7mm thick), and the orange crumb is uneven. Intermittently, it includes an satisfactory crispiness; elsewhere the texture of worn carpet. Beneath that, you will discover a gloopy underlay of undercooked batter, coating that sliver of squishy, textureless fish. The dominant flavours are breadcrumbs and tired cooking oil.
Waitrose … ‘gunk’. Photograph: PR
Waitrose, Frozen 6 MSC line-caught chunky breaded cod fingers, 400g, £3.25
Fatter fingers, these (12.5cm by 3.5cm), they are as attractively tanned as a Costa expat. The notably peppery shells are audibly crisp plus they (albeit, much less comprehensively as they could possibly be) are filled up with a creditably thick layer of robustly textured fillet fish. The problem, however, is gunk: in lots of places lie millimetres of wet batter, sitting like grey putty beneath the breadcrumbs, which fundamentally undermines that crunch. You’ll eat these without complaint, but without great enthusiasm.
Tesco … ‘sticky’. Photograph: 36/PR
Tesco, Finest 6 chunky cod fillet fish fingers, 400g, £2.50
“Like eating bland jelly”, “so mushy it’s like they’re filled up with wet tissue”, “eerily insubstantial” read my tasting notes. While big (13cm by 3cm), these fingers fail on almost all fronts. You get the casual meatier, tastier mouthful (and there is some haphazard crunch in the crumb) but generally these pale fingers certainly are a trudge of damp, woolly fish swaddled in sticky batter, the crumb only loosely honored the fish; more blanket than tight coating. A everyday two fingers to the buyer.
M&S … ‘meaty’. Photograph: PR
M&S, 9 chunky breaded cod fish fingers, 360g, £2
But also for their notable 2cm thickness, these appear to be kids’ stuff: standard length, golden orange in colour, the coating offering little resistance as you put your fork through it. Munch on, however, and you may find the well-seasoned breadcrumb offers a light, brief residual crunch and an acceptable flavour (albeit yet another “fried” than savoury). The (in parts, slightly waterlogged) fish gives a toothsome, meaty texture and a clear sweetness. Crucially, there is no batter residue beneath the crumb. Overall, pretty good.
Co-OP … ‘mealy’. Photograph: PR
Co-Op, Ultimate fish fingers 6, 380g, £3.29
A curiosity, these 4cm-wide, MSC-approved fingers can be purchased fresh not frozen for oven-baking not grilling. The first batch tasted worthy and bland (they want more of the listed salt and cider vinegar), plus they required a blast beneath the grill to fortify the eventually impressively crackling, crunchy crumb. A substantial layer of moist, floury batter under that (still flavourless) crumb undermines it, however. Both incorporate to create an overly thick coating for fish that, while sporadically sound, was often mealy and lacking muscular density.
Asda … ‘claggy’. Photograph: 33/PR
Asda, 30 cod fillet fish fingers, 900g, £4
Boasting the fish finger’s classic fake tan-orange hue, Asda’s (toothless, gummy) offering will sate ravenous kids, but that’s all they are best for. The coating (more a baggy jacket) is gritty if not unpleasantly so, but offers no crisp definition initially bite and, just as before, hides an almost gelatinous substratum of icky batter. The 64% cod content appears generous, until you taste it. It really is classic frozen cod: mushy, flavourless, fibrous, chewy. Make a sandwich with these and it will be claggy chore.
Sainsbury’s … ‘by far the best’. Photograph: PR
Sainsbury’s, Taste the Difference 8 chunky cod fish fingers, 480g, £3
These swollen fingers (9cm by 4cm) aren’t immune to the issues outlined above. There is some glop beneath the crumb (providing them with hook gluey edge) and the MSC-approved fish, while persuasively meaty for once, could not be thought to taste vibrantly of cod. However, with their stand-out 70% cod content and their remarkably flavoursome, stridently crunchy crumb (nicely browned, deeply savoury, sparky with vine