FOOD & DRINK / Chipping away at a great tradition: Are today's low-fat varieties as good as the real thing? As National Chip Week looms, Michael Bateman finds out

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The Independent Culture
IN LATIN countries there is a saint for nearly every day of the year. Absurd, eh? In Britain we only honour them if they express our more profound feelings - like St Valentine, patron saint of flowers, chocolates, knick-knacks and classified ads. To the things that really matter we dedicate a whole week: National Tree Week, National Secretaries' Week, National Vegetarian Week. There's Ice Cream Week, Sausage Week and Californian Prune Week (yes, really). And tomorrow sees the launch of Britain's first ever National Chip Week.

Who chose chips for this signal honour? Not the Health Secretary, Virginia Bottomley, since her ministry produced a White Paper last year urging us to cut down on fried foods. Surely it wasn't the food minister and gourmand, Nicholas Soames? A lover of roast Angus beef and Yorkshire pudding, he would be more inclined to sing hymns to the roast potato than a chip. In fact, the Frozen Food Information Service has declared National Chip Week. Are chips an endangered species, then? No, but they are no longer regarded with quite the same tolerance and affection.

More people are waking up to the fact that chips may not be terribly good for them. When she was junior minister for health, Edwina Currie pressed the point but only succeeded in making herself unpopular on Tyneside. She suggested people could manage their own health care if they didn't waste their money buying cigarettes, beer and chips, equating chips as a health risk with nicotine and alcohol.

Certainly chips are amazingly high in calories. This didn't seem such a bad thing when the country's overall nutritional standards were extremely poor - that is to say, throughout the first half of this century. Fish and chips were then singled out as the best food source available to working people; fish providing excellent protein, and potatoes being for many people their chief source of Vitamin C. Excess calories were the least of their problems.

The chip is a comparatively modern phenomenon. While cold fried fish was a street food in Shakespeare's day, chips arrived in Britain in the 1880s, from France; they were known as 'alamodes' - pommes de terre a la mode francaise. Specially made deep fat-fryers were required, revolutionary in a country familiar only with shallow frying - cooking par- boiled potatoes in a frying pan.

Nineteenth-century frying was a far from glamorous trade, one step up from blood-

boiling, bone-boiling, soap-boiling, tallow-

melting and tripe-boiling. Fish was cooked in foul-smelling cottonseed oil. Due to these offensive odours, those who practised the trade were social outcasts. Henry Mayhew, the Victorian social historian, reported in 1861 that the fryers 'were forced to live in out-of-the-way alleys, not infrequently in garrets, for even among the poorest class there are great objections to their being fellow-lodgers on account of the odour of the frying'. He was told: 'A gin-drinking neighbourhood suits best, for people haven't their smell so correct there.'

These olfactory unpleasantnesses continued even after the more sophisticated alamode chip joined the repertoire (it was not until the early 1900s that a series of Public Health Acts cleaned up the process). Despite this, by 1914 there were 25,000 fish and chip shops in Britain. By the 1950s fish and chips were a working- class symbol, eaten with the fingers from the bag, doused with salt and malt vinegar, wrapped in last week's copy of the News of the World to keep off the grease.

Edwina Currie's attack on the Geordies' chips may have sounded suspiciously like an attack on the working class. But she had a point. While potatoes are considered better for your health than ever, the chip, because of the oil absorbed in the cooking, has a very high calorie content; mostly of the wrong sort - fat.

One pound of chips (were you to finish up your children's uneaten portions, say) contains 1,200 calories. This is more than half the daily energy needs of an active woman - around 2,300. A man needs about 2,700. A more realistic serving would be 8oz; the calorie counts produced by different cooking methods are as follows: boiled or baked potato, without butter, 184 calories; frozen oven-baked chips, 364 calories; fried fresh straight-cut chips, 544 calories; fried frozen straight-cut chips, 614 calories; fried frozen fine-cut chips, 819 calories.

We are going to be hearing more about frozen oven chips, which are significantly lower in fat. The reason that the Frozen Food Information Service did not call a National Oven Chip Week is that the firms who produce healthy oven chips also produce those unhealthy frozen ones for deep-frying at home. But the balance is swinging in favour of the healthier chips, and oven chips have climbed to a 43

per cent share of the frozen chip market.

What does an oven chip taste like? I bought a packet of McCain's (the market leaders with 27 per cent, ahead of Sainsbury's with 10 per cent). Only 5 per cent fat was the prominent claim, 40 per cent less than the average chip. Cost: pounds 1.19 for 2lb. I discarded the mis-shapen small ones, and one which was a nasty grey, then baked them straight from the freezer in a hot oven for 17 minutes. My children had been excited by the idea of buying McCain's (lively advertising) but actually ate them without comment. To me, they were uninteresting both in flavour and texture (pass the ketchup).

Conclusion: if I can't have a flavoursome, properly fried chip (a small quantity to compensate for the high calories) I'd rather eat a freshly boiled potato. I am in the majority, but only just: a Gallup survey commissioned in December showed that 41 per cent of the population buys frozen chips at least once a fortnight.

So chips may be bad for us, but who can deny us the occasional reckless act of irresponsibility? If we are going to do it, let's do it well.

Putting aside the question of calories, the secret of making good chips is to fry them twice. The first time you 'boil' them in oil at about 300F/150C for seven to 10 minutes, till they are soft and you can crush them between your fingers. Put them to one side to drain until you are ready to finish the cooking (you can prepare them several hours beforehand if you wish). Less fat is absorbed if you do the first cooking at a higher temperature, sealing the outside of the chip at around 350F/180C.

For the final cooking, heat the oil to 390F/195C, the hottest possible before oil breaks up into different compounds (you will get a fine haze of blue smoke). Lower the chips into the oil gently, frying the outside to a hard, crisp golden finish. This is a matter of seconds rather than minutes, depending on size of pan and number of chips. Don't crowd the pan, because the arrival of cold chips cools the oil.

The best potatoes for chipping are starchy, floury types: King Edward, Desiree, Wilja, Maris Piper, Estima, Ulster Sceptre. Never use new potatoes. After cutting into chips - the fat English chip is traditionally nine-sixteenths of an inch thick - rinse in cold water, shake dry in a colander, and lay between two tea cloths to absorb surface moisture. The French cut their chips, pommes frites, more finely, using a thickness of 1cm to get a crisper finish.

Corn or sunflower oil is best, being polyunsaturated. Only use oil three times, as it deteriorates in use. Be careful: there are 500 chip pan fires a day in Britain. For greater safety, use an electric chip pan, which will also eliminate cooking-oil smells.

(Photograph omitted)