Snack Critic: the Flavors of Britain in Snack Form, via the Great British Crisp CompanyJune 5, 2017
Much like they do with football and Doctor Who, the British are said to have the most fervent of passions for the humble potato chip—and in ways that are distinctly British compared to the rest of the world. First off, they call ‘em “crisps”, not “chips”. These crisps also come in an array of flavors much wider than their American counterparts, often taking after kitchen pantry items or even full–fledged meals.
There are a number of players in the arena of British crisp brands, among them the Great British Crisp Company. While the brand itself is relatively new, having been introduced only a little over the year ago, it is owned by Cornish company Warrens Bakery (said to be the oldest bakery in Cornwall—they’ve been around since 1860!—and the oldest makers of Cornish pasties in the UK). The lineup comes in a couple of variants, five of which have made their way to our Philippine shores (by which we mean our supermarket shelves). Are they worth seeking out? Do they deliver on the flavors that they promise?
(But first, The basics.)
Before delving into the individual flavors, we figured we’d dive into the potato crisp base that form each variant’s backbone. Each of these crisps are made with ingredients proudly representing their place of origin—Cornish potatoes and Cornish sea salt—and you can tell that real, fresh spuds go into it, with unevenly cut pieces in differing diameters and thickness (though most pieces come at about 2 inches wide and 1/16” thick—yes we measured) that gives it a rustic, even handmade, sort of charm. For the most part they’re crackly in the way Kettle-cooked chips are, without being greasy. You get a solid, satisfying crunch and a saltiness that penetrates deep without being aggressively punchy. We did notice they go stale and even rancid quite fast (within 3-4 days of being opened despite being tied shut to reseal, from what we’ve observed)—which does assure you these come free of preservatives, but also means you ought to finish up the whole bag fast. (Then again, this may or may not really be a problem.)
Without further ado, here’s what we thought of each flavor:
Cornish Sea Salt & Cider Vinegar
Salt and vinegar-flavored chips—er, crisps—though seemingly offbeat, happens to be one of the first seasoned chip flavors in the world (before that, commercially available chips were always sold naked with a separate packet of salt). It’s not hard to see why it may polarize snack lovers, but you ought give it a whirl at least once in your life. The Great British Crisp Co.’s take on the classic does justice to the ‘vinegar’ part of the equation—these are really, really sour. But more than that, it carries a surprisingly complex pungency and depth that brings to mind the distinctive tang of fermented goods, e.g. sauerkraut or kombucha. We can’t say our tastebuds are nuanced enough to be able to tell the difference that Cornish sea salt in particular makes, but we will say there’s just enough sprinkled on to even out the acidity and add its own savory, mineral punch.
Westcountry Cheddar Cheese & Chive
You can always find some form of cheese in most any snack line that it’s easy to think the flavor to be predictable. Set aside your expectations for these crisps, though. There is no vibrant shade of orange nor powerful processed-cheese scent to overwhelm the senses. This goes for a subdued take on cheddar that better represents the cheese’s nuances with its initial milky flavor that weaves in a subtle, sour cream-like tang and nuttiness the longer it stays on the tongue. The problem, though, is on how a more predominant sweetness tends to take over and steal the spotlight away from the cheese. The chive part of the equation feels too muted, too, mostly emerging when you actually lick the powder off the crisp’s surface. In a blind taste test with two friends, no one associated the overall flavor with cheese.
Traditional English Breakfast
Our curiosity sure was piqued with this variant, which aims to recreate the flavors of a Full English—the notoriously hefty breakfast platter of sausage, bacon, baked beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, and black pudding—in crisp form. Capturing the essence of entire meals (especially one with this many components) into singular food items can be tricky, so how did they execute this arduous task?
As you open the bag, the rich aroma of meat (it’s hard to identify which kind of meat exactly, but it’s right at that sweet spot between beef and pork) immediately fills your nostrils. Putting a crisp in the mouth, it tastes sweet and tomato-y, with a subtle meatiness that develops as you continue to chew. All together this reminds us of Filipino-style barbeque-flavored snacks, which makes this a pleasantly familiar variant for those curious to dip their toes into the world of UK snacks. It’s good, but as fans of the original dish in its entirety, we thought it was missing the flavor notes that would ideally resemble the black pudding.
Simply Fish and Chips
About that “chips” bit—remember what we said about what we might call “chips” being “crisps” in the UK? Consequently, what the British do call “chips” are actually what we consider fries—specifically, the thick-cut kind made with actual potatoes (e.g., none of the skinny, pre-frozen stuff you find at the McDonald’s drive-thru). Paired with battered white fish fillets, a wedge of lemon, vinegar (ideally malt vinegar), and (depending where you are) a side of mushy peas, these components form the classic takeaway fare of Fish and Chips.
The way the company executes it in this bag doesn’t bring to mind the classic dish unfortunately, starting out predominantly sour (just a notch below the in-your-face acerbity of the Sea Salt and Cider Vinegar variant) with a hint of sweetness. It makes sense considering the original dish is served with vinegar and lemon, but the “fish” flavor only comes out toward the end; even then it is hard to detect unless you deliberately set out to find it. The subtlety does make sense considering white fish, in real life, is naturally mild in flavor—but overall we don’t think this represents fish and chips as well as it could. (Granted, it could just be that our Asian tastebuds have been spoiled with the kind of fish-flavored snacks common in these parts which tend to be more potently fishy.)
Chicken Tikka Masala
Last but not the least is their take on a dish with an intriguing backstory (or claims to its backstory, anyway) that reflects facets of the country’s past as colonizers of India (from where the dish originates), and present as a multicultural nation. In spite of its often debated-upon history and polarizing status as a watered-down, corrupted take on Indian food heritage (historian Lizzie Collingham dubs it as a “a demonstration of the British facility for reducing all foreign foods to their most unappetizing and inedible forms”), tikka masala—the Anglo-Indian dish typically involving chicken tikka (roasted, marinated chicken) in a thick, tomato-heavy gravy—was heralded in 2001 as Britain’s national dish.
This crisp-morphed version delivers on chicken component, with a mildly spiced (we detect cumin) potatoes that start sweet but get tangier and more savory as you chew, and end with a hint of the taste you get from chicken broth cubes. Unfortunately it just about ends there—there is barely any hit of tomato or of the other spices definitive of the gravy—and this disappoints us as the gravy plays too important a role in the tikka masala experience to be skipped, in our opinion. All in all they’re not bad—the combination of potatoes, cumin and a hint of tang loosely reminds us of dry aloo gobi. It just doesn’t feel like tikka masala.
We’ll admit we found some of the variants (particularly the ones themed after entire meals) disappointing—not because they weren’t good per se, but because they didn’t quite capture the flavors or the dishes they promised to take after. And overall, we’d describe the crisps as tasting “clean” and rustic, which places them more along the artisanal, as opposed to purely junk-y, end of the spectrum. But this is not to say they’re in no way flavorful or tasty. Their strong point lies in the base potato crisp, whose texture and crunch they’ve got down pat that it’s hard to keep popping crisp after crisp, no matter what the flavor. If you must choose one, we’d strongly recommend the Cornish Sea Salt and Cider Vinegar (if you can handle the sourness) or the Traditional English Breakfast (if you must cling on to something familiar). Either way, for a true taste of Cornish tradition, be sure to include any of these in your grocery cart.