I have missed the British variety of crisps. Chips to some of you speaking your own version of English. Ultimately I am a huge – literally – fan of potent flavoured crisps. I have missed them a lot more than I should have.
I binged during my 2-week hiatus in the UK during December 2017. I am sure my number 1 favourite should come as no surprise to most British – pickled onion Monster Munch. Thankfully a friend visiting me in Lisbon last month indulged my request. I promptly took the top layer of cells from my tongue following the quick consumption of 2 packets. For those that do not know, the flavour is intense, a distinct vinegar taste rather than onion. It mellows after each bite.
Other favourite flavours are spicy Space Raiders, plastic cheese Wotsits, super vinegary Squares and melt in the mouth Skips. I’ve not forgotten bacon Frazzles, BBQ Pringles, Steak crinkle cut or deep ridged, sweet chilli Walkers Temptations and, well you get the picture. So the food in Britain is full of additives, I’ve just given you much evidence of my addiction. This is not only me, it is a UK national obsession.
In continental Europe, I have struggled to find strong flavours. Especially hearty meat or ultimate spicy options. I did purchase a packet that assured me of ‘packing a punch’ from the bag picture and name but I was as deflated as the packet when these crisps clearly had missed part of the taste production line in the factory.
The crisp section in the majority of shops is 2 or 3 small shelves of sharer packets, a larger packet than I really need. Maybe 6 flavours in the shop selection, at a push: original salted, lightly salted, dodgy cheese, paprika, tomato or sour cream & dill. I should be happy to find such a shelf. For the most part, it is salted or paprika. Then I munch on my snacks trying to eke out some flavour, they must save a lot of cost by only wafting the E numbers and flavouring near the potato.
Why the fascination of these unhealthy but delicious fried potato or maize snacks in the UK?
They have become a staple in our Brit ‘diet’ if you have any doubt of what I’m saying then visit the crisp aisle in a Sainsbury’s or Tesco supermarket extra. The UK consumes an estimated 6 billion packs of crisps and that’s in addition to 4.4 billion other savoury snacks A YEAR. Around 150 packets a person which really means one little old lady is eating 25 packets a year and a fanatic like me will be gorging on 275+ a year. Worrying.
The typical British would see this phenomenon as quintessentially ‘ours’ but of course, it isn’t. We are akin to the seagulls in Finding Nemo; “mine, mine, mine”. Not 100% documented but the crisp was allegedly created in Cary Moon’s Lake House restaurant in Saratoga Spring, New York. August 1853.
The story goes that George Crum got fed up with a customer (who may, or may not, have been rail magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt) sending back his fried potatoes because they were too thick. Following a third or fourth time, Crum, sliced the offending potato into wafer-thin slivers, deep-fried them and over-salted the result. Sending the dish out hoping the guy would choke on it. But Vanderbilt (if it was him) loved them. Of course, he did – starch, fat and salt – who wouldn’t?
Also a recipe for “fried potato shavings” was reportedly printed in America as early as 1832, in a book based on an even earlier collection of recipes from England. Woohoo maybe it was a British creation, however, a confirmed sighting of native British crisps was reported in 1913, made in London by a man called Carter, who had supposedly stumbled across them in France. The origin really is a mystery.
The UK has Mr and Mrs Smith to thank for the beginnings of an empire. In 1920, Smith’s Potato Crisps Company Ltd was formed in Cricklewood, north London, with Mrs Smith peeling, slicing and frying the potatoes in the garage and Mr Smith packing them into greaseproof bags (later with a pinch of salt in a twist of blue paper inside – for Brits of a certain age, we remember the little blue packet of salt in modern-day packets, “salt ‘n shake”). The firm was so successful it had moved to new premises and hired 12 full-time staff before its first year was out. The rest, they say, is history.
It’s not clear who created the first flavoured crisps (ask any crisp company of sufficiently lengthy years and they’ll say, ‘It was us’) but thank you to the multiple genius inventors. Flavoured crisps entered the marketplace in the 60’s and the crisp sales doubled. Technologists embraced the challenge for new foods as did the public. Even creating the British Society of Flavourists in the 1970s. The fad and craze for new flavours began slowly but by the 80’s, the UK public wanted fast food combined with experimental tastes based on continental dishes or oriental spices. The dawn of the ‘prawn cocktail’.
With each decade the greater consumption of sandwiches and beer has a direct positive impact on the sale of crisps. The ideal accompaniment for the latest UK food obsession of store-bought pre-packaged sandwiches at lunch.
I read on the European Association Snacks website – yes, I did – that consumers in the Netherlands, Norway and Spain purchase more chips/crisps, savoury snacks and snack nuts (per capita) than UK consumers. Well, blow me down. They are the last countries I’d have guessed, they have many other foods in these countries to snack on such as stroopwafel, liquorice, potato pancakes and olives.
By chance, I’ve yet to travel through any of these countries. I’m heading to the Netherlands in 11 days so I’ll be checking out the supermarket aisles.
For the countries such as Greece, Italy, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic I know for sure they do not have the wonder of Monster Munch. I did try the equivalent of a peanut Wotsit – a puffed crisp. Absolutely the devil’s food, this was wrong for me on a lot of levels.
Ali Payne, Vice President of global snacks innovation at PepsiCo. explains in a National Geographic article with Hannah Steinberg that cultural cravings affect seasonings. Emerging flavour trends and local cuisines are tastes that resonate the most. The restaurant trends transfer to the crisp world.
Travellers are being exposed to ingredients from other countries and this is desired as snack flavours in the US and UK but not in such great demand for continental Europe.
Looking at general diets within each country, I think there is a more traditional palate in some countries. It is still possible to venture into more wonderfully obscure flavours such as goulash in Hungary, Pierogi in Poland and salted cod in Portugal but I have the feeling it is too frivolous and no guarantee of sales for the producer.
I believe the sharer packet makes a difference in taste choice, the bigger packet of crisps is for the family or a group of people [so I’m told]. The buyer’s choice is to please the masses rather than satisfy an individual yearning for an unusual flavour. I am inclined to try a newly released flavour when in a smaller, cheaper packet.
I believe the habit of eating a larger hot lunch in many continental European countries results in less demand for the savoury snacks. The opposite to the UK and US lunch routines.
In my research to find how many weird and wacky flavours we Brits have access too, I found 2 funny and informative websites about crisps.
We all know how to consume information about any topic from the internet as well as actual tangible food! You can even purchase the book – A Brief History of Crisps, by Steve Berry and Phil Norman.
I couldn’t find a definitive number of flavours however the Chips and Crisps website lists 56 UK producers, let us estimate each producer has 30 flavours. I know this will be overestimated for some and massively underestimated for the larger names. My ‘back of a napkin’ sums = 1,680 different options.
They already share over 1300 reviews of crisps from far and wide so it is safe to say the crisp/potato chip is here to stay.
From the lists and reviews, I am planning to search out the following crisps. Whilst I am now being careful what I eat on my travels, everything in moderation is ok 🙂 Hopefully, I will find a little more adventure in the European crisp aisle at some point in the future.
In the Netherlands, I will search out Patatje Joppie (Joppiesaus is a regional mayonnaise-style sauce that is usually put on chips…erm french fries), and Indonesian Grilled Pork, or Babi Pangang, as it is called. In Belgium they have a brand called Croky and a bolognese flavour – I never knew this was a Belgium dish? Hmmm. I will let you know if I succeed.
If you are from continental Europe and love wacky favours – please tell me what and where I can find them!