Fish fingers: How has the classic tea-time treat evolved?

Fish finger sandwich Fish fingers: the taste of childhood?

Fish fingers were one of the original frozen meals, but while remaining a classic tea-time treat, they have also evolved since first arriving in the UK.

The humble fish finger has been on quite a journey since its first appearance in shops in the 1950s. It started as a smash-hit children's dinner and spread to student cookbooks.

While supermarket sales suggest it retains its original appeal, it has also been re-invented by gastropubs and restaurants which have taken advantage of its nostalgic appeal.

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For many fish finger fans, their first crunch was in childhood.

"I very much remember having fish fingers, chips and mushy peas… as a kid," says Toph Ford, head of food at the Leon restaurant chain based in south east England, which features a fish finger wrap on its menus.

"My mum and dad would have had tartar sauce, as we put in our wrap now. And I would probably have gone along the ketchup line," he says.

Frozen food brand Birds Eye claims to have first introduced fish fingers to the UK.

Birds Eye started in the US when inventor Clarence Birdseye developed the freezing process, and in the 1930s launched the first line of frozen foods.

In 1955, Birds Eye says, fish fingers were produced at a company factory in Great Yarmouth and sold to the public.

The new product, aimed at families, was instantly popular and sold 600 tonnes in its first year, at the cost of one shilling and eight pence (equivalent to about £1.80 today) per packet.

"We think about 75% of the population get their first taste of fish through a fish finger," says Birds Eye managing director Andy Weston-Webb.

"It is such an iconic and well-loved dish," says Charlotte Pike, author of the Hungry Student cookbook series.

The meal's simplicity and potential cheapness makes it an ideal candidate for student cookbooks.

Ms Pike's recipe, served with sweet chilli, aioli and salad, can be made with shop-bought frozen or homemade fish fingers.

"I wanted to reinvent it, make it better and show people how easy it is to make," she says.

"I think people are more aware that they can make their own easily at home."

Fish finger dinner Over 50% of households eat fish fingers every year, says manufacturer Birds Eye

A trend for nostalgic British meals in recent years has seen fish fingers appear on gastropub and restaurant menus, albeit as a more grown-up dish.

Alongside Leon's Mediterranean menu are "British nostalgia" dishes, says Mr Ford. "So that's really where the fish finger comes from," he says.

"It reminds you of that favourite childhood meal."

But chefs are now making "a kind of new level of fish finger," he explains.

"Instead of buying your small supermarket fish fingers, people are buying fresh cod and filleting it themselves… and bread-crumbing it and having good quality fish fingers."

When Leon added the fish finger wrap to its menu in 2011, it instantly became the restaurant's best-selling wrap, and remains in top position.

"It's probably one of the dishes that we're most known for," Mr Ford explains.

Supermarkets have seen rising fish finger sales in recent years, but in 2013 volume sales dropped by 5%, according to market research company Kantar Worldpanel.

However the UK's largest manufacturer of the product, Birds Eye, doubts that people have lost their taste for them.

"Every year more than 50% of households eat fish fingers," says Mr Weston-Webb.

Karen Galloway, head of marketing at seafood industry body Seafish, believes the drop in sales is down to the supermarkets, not changing tastes.

"There has been a significant change in the promotional strategies of the retailers - bulk buy deals like buy one get one free have been reducing as they move to price-based promotions to help cash-strapped shoppers," she says.

"This will have an impact on fish fingers."

Fish fingers Many fish fingers are made with Alaskan pollock rather than cod

Mr Weston-Webb has a different theory.

"One of the things we can suffer from is when it's a particularly hot summer," he explains, which means people turn to salads and burgers, and away from oven-cooked dinners.

Ms Galloway says for many families (adults as well as their children), frozen fish fingers are one of the ways they can eat fish regularly.

"I think there is an appreciation that they are 'pure fish' as it's generally easy to see the fish flakes rather than a reconstituted product."

So what's in a frozen fish finger?

These days many are made from Alaskan pollock which is MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified.

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"Manufacturers moved away from a reliance on cod many years ago," says Ms Galloway.

Breadcrumbs and batter are the other ingredients used to make the product.

Nutrition-wise, Ms Pike says that "freshly made fish fingers are much better for you" than frozen ones.

"They contain no artificial ingredients or additives and you have a much higher ratio of fish to breadcrumbs which is better for you."

Although Mr Weston-Webb argues that oven-cooked fish fingers can make a healthy and balanced dinner - three fish fingers equate around 10% of a (5 to 10-year-old) child's guideline daily intake of calories, he says.

Fish fingers were one of the first frozen foods in a sector that today offers a plethora of easy-to make, cheap meals, with lasagne being the best-selling category.

However Birds Eye says its fish finger sales are better than when they first entered the market in the 50s and have remained strong in all the decades in between.

"I think it's a very robust product category," says Ms Galloway.

"We know what to expect with them but I think that as with many fish products, we need continually to be reminded to eat them."

She envisages fish fingers having a similar kind of renaissance to that of fish cakes, which are now sold as an "upmarket" chilled product in flavours such as salmon and dill, Thai prawn and crab.

"Fish fingers are not quite there yet, but it's coming," she says.

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