I’ve never been to Sorrento, if you mean the seaside town in Italy just south of Naples and Pompeii. But THE Sorrento is a different matter. It’s a little old Dublin chipper, on Arbour Hill in Stoneybatter.
The Sorrento has recently branched out, making its own gorgeous range of gelatos, but that’s another story. It’s still best known for its fish and chips and burgers and pies. And spice burgers of course.
Once you step into an old-style Irish chipper like the Sorrento you are spoiled for choice. I don’t mean one of the new kids on the block, such as the Fish Shop around the corner on Benburb Street (and its sister restaurant on Queen Street), with its sleek modern décor and incredibly minimalist menus – stripped right back to one item: Beer-battered Catch of the Day with Handcut Chips (or Salad) and Homemade Tartare Sauce.
No, I mean a traditional Stoneybatter fish and chipper such as the Sorrento or Olivo’s or the Manor Takeaway, the kind that has a humongous list on the wall. The kind of place where – unless you already know what you fancy before you’ve walked through the door – you can’t decide whether to go for the Worley Burger or the Batter Burger, and probably end up with a Spice Burger instead.
A spoice boorger an’ a cuddy chips please mister.
In your typical Irish chipper much of the fare will of course involve batter, from battered fish to the humble batter burger or battered sausage. But the Worley Burger and – above all – the Spice Burger occupy rather special places on the rather battered and breadcrumbed Irish culinary map.
The Worley Burger
Though the spellings may vary wildly, even in establishments on the same street – from Worley or Whorly to Whirly, Wurly Werly, Warley and even Warely – the Worley Burger will usually involve a classic quarter-pounder burger that has been deep-fried in batter. It should be served in a bun, usually with ketchup, mayo, onions, lettuce and possibly cheese. The cheese, of course, should be of the processed “EasiSingles” variety, and not to be confused with a dating agency of a similar name.
A good Irish chipper will probably bow to its customers’ wide-ranging tastes and market demand. Hence that long menu is also likely to offer kebabs, pies, pizzas, scampi, hot dogs, onion rings, chicken pieces, chicken nuggets and suchlike. You will also find curry chips, garlic chips, garlic-and-cheese chips, gravy chips, possibly ray and chips, and sometimes even pigs’ trotters – which I came across once in a Kilmainham takeaway.
Many establishments will also do something called “cod portion” or “portion cod”. Unlike fresh cod or smoked cod, portion cod comes from a strange rectangular species of fish, and even though it’s usually much cheaper than these more identifiable marine wildlife I tend to avoid it.
Whatever your fare though, it will probably come swimming – nay, drowning – in a pool of vinegar. You know in advance that the malt vinegar will have all the subtlety of Ronseal paint stripper and that it will grab you by the throat, yet you simply have to have it. The warm aroma will be so irresistibly delicious that it will have you opening the bag as soon as you step out of the premises.
Readers of this blog will be quick (OK, slow more likely) to champion other more regional specialties of takeaway fare, from the Tullamore Roll (a baguette filled with batter sausage, chips and curry sauce) to the Wexford Rissole (this imported “food grenade” is a spiced potato cake that is either breaded or battered). But above all, across our fair green isle from Malin Head to Mizen Head, perhaps nothing is more ubiquitous, nothing more peculiarly Irish, more traditional and more thoroughly takeawayable than the Spice Burger.
The Spice Burger
Although it seems as old as the proverbial hills, the Spice Burger is a relatively recent Irish invention. Yet despite this brief history, it’s the kind of story that would make a damn good little documentary or even a gripping TV drama starring one of the Gleeson clan.
The Spice Burger was first concocted by one Maurice Walsh at the back of his butcher shop in Glasnevin on the northside of Dublin in the early 1950s. Walsh Family Foods went on to develop the product at various premises including a factory in Finglas on the Poppintree industrial estate, at one stage employing seventy workers.
Their Spice Burger was, as their website put it, “a delicious blend of Irish beef, onions, cereals, herbs and spices coated with traditional outer crumb”, and it quickly became an institution. Ireland was now the Land of Spice Burgers. Besides being available in many takeaways, some supermarkets also stocked a ready-cooked microwaveable version.
Now and again the packets would pop up in Tescos in Prussia Street, and the last time I saw them I had a good gander at the ingredients listed on the packaging. If I remember right, the beef made up only 10 or 11% of the mix, followed by beef fat. With such relatively little meat content – at least compared with a standard quarter pounder – no wonder many a punter mistook them for vegetarian fare.
Despite the obvious popularity of their Spice Burgers and other products, Walsh Family Foods was an early victim of the recession and went into receivership in 2009. Yet such was the outcry about the imminent demise of the Spice Burger that there was a Facebook campaign to bring it back. There was even a legal row in the Four Courts over the Finglas firm’s secret recipe.
Eventually that row was resolved, paving the way for the business – including the secret recipe and the rest of its intellectual property and patents and what have you – to be bought in 2012 by the European arm of a US multinational, Keystone Foods.
Although the Walsh family had already sold the business back in 2000, Paddy Walsh later came out of retirement to make his own Spiceburgers – now one word, now based in Wexford – with a small group of close family, under the “Paddy Walsh Foods” brand.
Their website says the idea was to return the Spiceburger “to the more traditional flavours that had become somewhat blunted over the past number of years”, this time with Paddy’s unique new recipe of herbs and seasonings. Besides the breadcrumbs and the batter, the website lists the ingredients of the burger itself as:
Water, Rusk (Wheat flour, Salt, E503 (Ammonium Carbonate: Raising agent), Beef (20%), Onions, Textured Soya Protein, Herbs, Spices, Potato Starch, Rapeseed Oil
I can’t give you any steer about what secret herbs and spices to use, but if you want to make your own spice burgers from scratch at home, the Gastro Gays have an interesting-sounding recipe of sorts on their website.
I’d go along with their observation that the mince should be finer than “traditional minced beef”. Take your standard mince from your butchers and give it an extra blitz in a food blender. While it might not look appetising in this raw state, the consistency will be just perfect.