December 3, 2010 5:24 pm

The taste test: gourmet salt and vinegar crisps

Salt and vinegar crisps

The rationale for this week’s assignment was that the market is now flooded with gourmet crisps from boutique manufacturers and they need assessing. Even for the classic salt and vinegar flavour, the packet descriptions are hymns of gastronomic hyperbole. Take the vinegar. Across 14 products we discovered “Italian Balsamic”, “Modena Balsamic”, “Sherry”, “Chardonnay Wine”, “Somerset Cider” and “Aspall Cyder” as well as common or garden “malt”. But our panel tasted blind, oblivious to all this hokum, and generally they were not impressed.

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A packet of crisps without a pint of lager is like Hobbs without Sutcliffe, Dolce without Gabbana or Crosse without Blackwell. So the panel were promised superior lager, but only after they had completed their task. The Bibulous Shipowner (BS) was well cast because he likes his chips drowning in vinegar. The Gourmet Celeb (GC) negotiated a bottle of stout as his reward, the better to anaesthetise his taste buds at the end. What did the Epicure Publisher (EP) want? When he saw the crisps on the table and smelt the aggressively acidic aroma in the room, he wanted out. But the promise of an extra bottle of lager seemed to mollify him. A debutante, the Interior Designer (ID), held us spellbound as she described her Iberian childhood with freshly fried crisps at the circus. Lastly, the Gluttonous Pig (GP) – only he had the capacity and lack of inhibition to dive in with a smile.

The panel’s first conclusion is that cider vinegar is not a potato’s natural bedfellow. One was distinctly unpleasant: “sweaty” (GC); “creeps up on you in rather a nasty way”(EP); “festering old rugby kit”(GP). Our second issue concerned sweetness. There’s a small amount of naturally occurring sugars in spuds. The manufacturers also add more (typically dextrose or lactose), presumably to balance the acidity of the vinegar powder. But when you’re left with a cloying sweetness on the palate, they have overdone it. Our advice to Salty Dog, Phileas Fogg and Pipers is to correct this. One was memorably dismissed by the Bibulous Shipowner as “an embalmed sugar puff”.

There were honourable mentions for Burts Hand Fried Salt and Vinegar Chips from Devon, described as “upmarket” by the Gourmet Celeb, and for Convivial Yorkshire Crisps with Chardonnay Wine Vinegar. Unusually these come in a drum and the Gluttonous Pig approvingly announced they had “a good fatty taste”. But our winning crisp was Kettle Chips, Sea Salt & Balsamic Vinegar: “satisfying”(ID); “perfectly acceptable balance of acid, salt and sugar”(GC); “OK in a pub”(BS). Significantly, the runner-up was a new product from the same company – Kettle Ridge Crisps, Salt & Malt Vinegar: “piquant”(GP); “leaves you wanting more”(ID).

To round off the tasting, we threw in two festive flavourings from Tyrrells – Turkey & Chestnut Stuffing and Stilton & Grape. And for the first time ever, the panel, scoring each product out of a hundred, actually gave negative scores.

We will, however, recommend the two ales with which we gratefully cleansed our palates. Freedom Organic Lager from Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire has a wonderfully authentic hoppy tang. And Williams Black, a stout from Alloa in Scotland, delivers a smooth malted flavour with a pleasingly bitter edge. There you are, we can be positive if we try.

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The winner

Kettle Chips, Sea Salt & Balsamic Vinegar

Recently bought by Diamond Foods, Kettle Foods began in Salem, Oregon in 1978. It gained a UK arm in 1987, primarily to capitalise on the British love of crisps. In 1997, this classic flavour was launched, with select potatoes and oak-aged Modena vinegar.

£1.79 for 150g, www.kettlefoods.co.uk

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