GRANADA has the Alhambra, Athens has the Acropolis, Fort William has Nico’s Fish and Chip Restaurant. Do not underestimate the power of fish and chips over a hungry man returning from an exhausting day in the mountains. Do not dismiss Nico’s as another Scottish takeaway on another Scottish high street.
I’m all scrubbed up after a sweaty day on Beinn a’ Chlachair, Geal Charn and Creag Pitridh, and I’m sitting in Nico’s. This neat little waitress has just brought me a Nico’s Special Fish Supper, which comprises battered fish (cod or haddock), chips, mushy peas (beans is the alternative) salad, mug of black tea and a slice of bread and butter – all for £6.90.
I love Nico’s. I’ve been coming here for years. Even brought Anne once, which shows how much I like it and just how romantic I can be when the mood takes me. At Nico’s you can buy a takeaway, or you can sit in his marvellous emporium and savour the delights of traditional fish and chips as they should be eaten. Having said that, there’s a lot of pleasure to be gleaned from dipping greasy fingers in a bag while dangling your feet over the quayside of a quiet Scottish fishing port – but if you want to do it in style, you go to Nico’s.
Nico’s is a traditional Scottish fish shop – just like the ones in the Oor Wullie and The Broons books, which are all run by chaps called Toni or Luigi and who invariably sport big black moustaches. Nico’s has mock marble tables, sensible chairs, traditional décor with a line of tiles around the wall, and waitress service. And Nico is there in the flesh, frying his fish and frying his chips. Though, disappointingly, he doesn’t sport a big black moustache.
Through subsequent research I discover there was an influential wave of Italian immigration into Scotland in the 1890s and early 20th Century. The immigrants – fleeing abject poverty in Italy – turned their talents to the catering trade, in particular ice cream parlours and fish and chip shops. Scotland, today, has the greatest concentration of chip shops in the British Isles (there are more chip shops in Scotland than there are grocery stores), many of them still owned by Italian families. That’s not to presume Nico’s falls into this category. For all I know, “Nico” could be Gaelic for “Warrior of the Silver Sea Beasts” or something as equally poetic.
Chip shops in Scotland – why are they so bloody wonderful? There’s a cracker in Aviemore, two crackers in Ullapool, and a marvellous chip van at Killin on Loch Tay where the proprietor entertains her customers with humorous banter while they wait in the queue. It’s an enjoyable and enlightening experience. Want a deep-fried steak pie with chips? She’ll oblige and make you laugh at the same time. But I’ll stick with cod or haddock, thank you very much, lovingly splashed with malt vinegar and a sprinkling of salt.
Another Time, Another Plaice
HECTOR’S PLAICE does not sell the eponymous item, so I settle for cod or haddock for £4.50. It is not the most delicious fish supper I have had in Scotland. It does not compare with Nico’s, for instance, or the fish supper I devoured in Aviemore one lunchtime while waiting for the cloud to clear off Bynack More. Hint of a secret ingredient in that one, I think. Perhaps a little garlic in the batter.
But the views equal the fish supper I had in Ullapool, where I sat with my parcel on the quayside, feet dangling over the water, gazing pensively along Loch Broom. Hector’s fish supper I eat a hundred yards from his Plaice, on the quayside at Kyle of Lochalsh, with the Cuillins in the background and the pleasant evening air full of the smells of the sea and the fishing port.
Is this the perfect way to end a day, or what? A dusty walk out of the Knoydart peninsula along the rough Loch Hourn path. Forty winks in a layby with the sun on my face. A slow drive north up quiet roads. And now, sitting here in the evening sun licking vinegar and crusty salt from my fingers while the seagulls mew and dive around me. Bring on the dancing girls.