Chips off the old block

We eat 1.2 million bags every hour, but which crisps are worth their salt?
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The Independent Culture
In the hazy recollection of childhood, I recall a packet of crisps as being central to the pleasure of drinking a Coke, which came in a bottle with a straw. Ice-cream was sold from pale-blue vans with a pink cow on the side called "Tonibell" (my father-in-law, incidentally). And the crisps were Smiths.

Fast forward to the present day and the Coke bottle is nearing extinction, Tony Bell is retired, and as for Smiths, the days of this plain, lightly salted crisp seem numbered. Given how many billions of potato crisps are crunched each year (1.2 million bags eaten every hour in Britain alone), it is the power of the many in the hands of a few.

I can hardly call it a crisp war. The outright winner is Walkers which, like Smiths, is owned by PepsiCo. Precise percentages of the market are Walkers, 61 per cent (with Smiths at 1 per cent); Golden Wonder, 7 per cent; KP, 4 per cent; and the supermarket own labels at 21 per cent. The remaining percentage is made up of small independent labels.

Crisps, as befits a best-selling snack, were invented by an American, George Crum, who was a chef at the Moonlake Hotel in Sarasota Springs, in 1853. The first commercial production in the UK was started by Frank Smith at the beginning of the century. His crisps came in open greaseproof paper bags with a twist of blue paper containing salt.

Walkers, originally a pork butcher in Leicester, turned to crisps in a big way when meat was rationed during the war. But the automation of the Fifties put paid to the flavour and texture that would have characterised the early crisps, fresh from the deep-fryer.

The competitive price attached to the factory-produced product drove the street vendors, with their hand-cooked crisps, out of business. A modern moan from those who remember original crisps is that they're now too pale in colour, they're not thick or potato-y enough and they don't possess the same crunch. And thereby hangs a tale.

Along comes the likes of Kettle Chips. Twenty years ago, producers in the US began pioneering the batch-cooked method - cooking potato chips by hand in an attempt to return to a product that reflected original crisps. This caught on in the States and, about eight years ago, Kettle Foods set up over here, where they have also done very well within a niche market.

So what's different? Standard flat crisps, as in Walkers and Golden Wonder, are produced by the continuous processing method. Basically, a finely sliced potato goes in one end, and comes out the other a grown-up crisp.

In the past, this has created its own set of problems: to produce a crisp that doesn't burn in the process, special low-sugar varieties of potato are used. But these don't caramelise in the same fashion, resulting in a flavour less rounded than you would get from deep-frying an ordinary potato.

Kettle Chips get by on a different variety of potato - a Russet Burbank - that's higher in natural sugars. As they are hand-cooked, the colour can be controlled and they can be removed as they darken. The end result is a more potato-y-tasting crisp.

If you have taken to eating "hand-cooked", or "traditional" potato crisps in the belief that these are a variant on Kettle Chips, I should tell you that all the own-label "hand-cooked" chips are produced by Kettle. There may be minor variations but basically they are the same.

A word, too, about what are known in the trade as "mimics" - snacks made from "smash" or extruded potato, re-formed to look like a crisp. These are snacks such as Pringles and Stackers and don't really qualify.

So far, so theoretical. Next, I ran a taste test, first off with the "lites", taking into account the flavour of the potato and of the oil, the overall crunch and saltiness. Walkers, amid great fanfare, has just effected the launch of a "lite" crisp, claiming a revolutionary new method of processing the chip whereby excess oil is steamed off the finished product. The result, it claims, is the first low-fat crisp to taste anything like an ordinary version.

These were tested against Golden Wonder "lites", which are in fact a mimic, and against own-brand "low fat crisps"; and certainly they were better than these. But they were nothing like as good as ordinary Walkers ready salted, and the difference in calories is slight: 550 kcal per 100g of the ordinary, compared with 510 kcal per 100g of "lites".

Given that Kettle Chips are only 496 kcal per 100g, and Smiths are 534 kcal per 100g, both of which are far preferable to "lites", I am nonplussed as to why they have launched this product at all.

The next test was to discover whether there is one ready-salted supreme champion. There were just three main players: Golden Wonder, Smiths and Walkers. Smiths were guilty of being anaemic, definitely low in natural sugars, and the chips were pale and lacking in flavour. Golden Wonder and Walkers had a much better colour and flavour, but Walkers won the day on the flavour of the oil, or rather, lack of it.

The final test was pitching Walkers against the hand-cooked crisp. Not in itself an easy comparison, given that they are completely different crisps. The Kettle Chips were much richer in potato flavour, the texture was excellent and the uneven quality to each one was very appealing.

Ultimately, however, they lost the contest because of the overwhelming flavour of oil. We're not talking estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil, it's sunflower oil, and even if it's the very best it still isn't desirable.

So there it is, much crunching later (incidentally, I don't recommend crisp tasting for its feelgood factor), Walkers with their lion's share of the market deserve to be up there. With the ready-salted, at any rate