The name “John Bull” evokes satirical ideas about quintessential Britishness and was particularly popular in cartoons, depicting a portly middle-aged man who encapsulated an ordinary Englishman.
If you asked me to order a “John Bull”, I might suggest that was the name of a lager, popular with regular local pub dwellers. However, I would never have landed on what it really is – a classic dish served in Blackburn crisps.
Labeled “A Blackburn Treat”, the John Bull is sold at Holly Tree Chippy, a local and busy chip shop on Pinewood in the village of Holly Tree. I am immediately reassured when I see from the outside that the shop proudly displays the ‘famous dish’ with posters hung on the walls, indicating that ‘Blackburn’s Famous John Bull’ is sold on the premises.
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Grateful that I hadn’t been sent on a “tartan painting” style mission, I was now excited for my new dining experience. I walked straight to the counter to order and ask the ladies serving the customer what it was all about.
Although the ladies were unsure of the origins, Julie went the extra mile to help me find out, and before I knew it, I was put on the phone with her father, Michael Rose, the owner by Holly Tree Chippy. He told me this is a dish that was once widely available in East Lancashire fries as during the war fish was too expensive and it became a cheaper alternative.
But was it? The John Bull is, in Michael’s own words, “a seasoned mixture of lean, savory minced meat, sandwiched between two slices of potato and fried in our light, crispy batter, and of course, with very secrets too”.
It is believed to have been invented by chippy Proctors on Bolton Road, which is now closed, so no one can try the original John Bull. However, I’m told that customers say this is the closest you’ll get to Holly Tree Chippy – and some can’t even tell the difference. Enough for me.
The chippy even has its own YouTube video detailing “how to make a good traditional John Bull”, so now we’ve all been convinced to buy one, let’s give it a try. First of all, it looks like one of the crispiest foods I’ll probably ever eat, which is a promising start to any dish.
When asked if I want salt and vinegar (have you ever said no to such a question?), I can see how it soaked into the dough, without making it soggy or unappealing. I take it with me, after being told it will be incredibly hot, and once at home I open it to reveal the inside.
It is much fuller than I expected and has retained its inner layers very well. You can see the potatoes which are hidden under the dough, with the generous amount of minced meat inside.
The taste is exactly what you want it to be and more – the batter is really crispy and the potato acts as a nice soft layer for everything else. The meat is very well spiced and bursting with flavor, which they certainly thought long and hard about.
It may be sacrilegious but it reminds me of something akin to a Cornish pie – yes the outside is clearly different but the spicy minced meat is what I can taste. All in all I can understand why the locals from Blackburn go there and why this particular chippy is so popular with the locals – I recommend trying your local dishes as you never know how impressed you will be.