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We British just can’t resist a crisp or two – happily munching our way through a staggering six billion packets or so every year. And, as the discovery of a rare 19th-century recipe book has revealed, we’ve loved these salty snacks for at least two centuries.
Later this week a London auction house is selling an original copy of Cook’s Oracle, dating from 1817 and written by William Kitchiner, a famous chef from the Georgian era.
Discovered in a private collection, the book includes a recipe for sliced potatoes, fried in lard and served with a little salt.
Although vastly higher in calories, they aren’t totally alien to the modern-day crisps you find in a packet of Walkers or McCoy’s.
Also an amateur musician and an optician, Kitchiner – who died in 1827 aged 51 or 52 – was an early example of a celebrity chef, his cookbook a bestseller in both Britain and America.
His book also contains no fewer than 11 ketchup recipes, with flavours such as oyster, cockle, mussel and mushroom. The first-edition copy is being sold by an anonymous collector through Forum Auctions with a guide price of £600.
“The present work contains one of the earliest recipes for what we now know as crisps,” explains Justin Phillips of the auction house. “Perhaps it could even be the genesis of the crisp, which is a British institution.”
Crisps were first produced commercially by the Mikesell’s Potato Chip Company in America in 1910.
Not long after, British firm The Smiths Potato Crisps Company started selling them in greaseproof bags with a little twist of salt.
By the 1960s, manufacturers were adding flavouring to their crisps – cheese and onion being an early favourite.
Nowadays there are dozens of flavours available, from the humble ready salted or salt and vinegar to more exotic offerings such as Brussels sprouts, cappuccino, milk chocolate, Christmas tree, and even cajun squirrel.
And we’re keener on them than ever. Our annual consumption of six billion bags amounts to more than the rest of Europe put together.
With his simple flour, lard and salt, Kitchiner couldn’t possibly have guessed how popular his invention would prove to be.
Peel large potatoes, and slice them the thickness of a two-penny piece, dry them well in a clean cloth, flour them and fry them in lard.
Take care that your lard and frying pan are quite clean, put it on a quick fire, watch it, and as soon as it boils, and the lard is still, put in the slices of potato, and keep moving them until they are crisp.
Take them up and lay them to drain on a sieve, send them up with a very little salt sprinkled over them.
How do these vintage fried potato slices compare to their modern cousins?
It matters not whether we’re grabbing a small bag of salt-and-vinegar Walkers on the journey home from school, or settling down for a comfy Friday night in with a family pack of pickled-onion Monster Munch, we’re big crisp fans in our household.
But when it comes to the crunch, I’m not sure that I have the time – or the inclination – to make them at home.
The last time I attempted it was when we were in lockdown and I was struggling to find time-filling activities for my 10-year-old twin daughters, Martha and Charlotte. That day, we cut out potatoes in the shape of characters from their favourite spaceship computer game and baked them in the oven.
While the designs looked great, the taste was bland and rather potato-ey. I didn’t think Gary Lineker would have much to worry about. So could a 200-year recipe come to my rescue? William Kitchiner recommends I peel large potatoes, slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would peel a lemon”.
I try the peeling method but think the slices are too thin so instead go for the more conventional slicing. Watch your fingers.
Next, he instructs me to “dry them well in a clean cloth”. I use everyday kitchen roll which does the job perfectly. Then he says I should flour them, so even more moisture is absorbed. I use ordinary plain flour.
Kitchener suggests I should ensure my pan and lard are clean – a bit rude if you ask me – before melting it over a “quick fire”. I have no “quick fire”, so I turn my electric hob on to the highest heat but it’s rather alarming when I see smoke appearing after only a few seconds and I turn it down quickly to a mid-level heat. Once in the fat, the potato slices take around seven to eight minutes to turn a lovely golden colour.
I notice that the fewer I fry, the quicker they brown.
If you’re doing a big batch, fry only a handful at a time. When they’re golden, take them out and drain on a sieve or cooling tray then sprinkle with salt.
My crisps cool very quickly, after only a couple of minutes. As for the taste, they are delicious. Slightly thicker than the average crisp but super crunchy and very salty. I’ll still be sticking to my shop-bought packets but for the occasional treat, I may just be taking Kitchiner into my kitchen. Gary Lineker should take note!
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