A Brief History of Crisps: do us a flavour

24 July 2014

In this extract from A Brief History of Crisps, authors Steve Berry and Phil Norman trace the origins of the many crisp flavours available in the UK.



It’s not clear who came up with the first flavoured crisps (ask any crisp company of sufficiently advanced years and they’ll say, ‘It was us’), but Ireland’s Tayto have a better claim than most with their early-doors cheese and onion circa 1957, with Golden Wonder following suit soon after.

Smiths, slow on the uptake but eventually sensing an emerging market, countered with salt ‘n’ vinegar, tested first by their Geordie subsidiary Tudor, and launched nationally in 1967. Though they did not know it, both companies had fired the first rounds in a battle that would become a two-decade-long flavour war. By the end of the 1960s, the crisp market had doubled.

Research and development 

First to notice was – who else? – renowned architecture and design critic Reyner Banham, the man who had helped define early modernism, brutalism and industrial megastructure. An unlikely commentator on the common ‘tater, possibly, but an earnest one nonetheless. In a prescient 1970 New Society magazine piece entitled ‘The Crisp at the Crossroads’, no doubt knocked out over a weekend, he correctly identified a trend towards ‘sundry aromas arising from the secret kitchens of [crisp companies’] research and development departments’. Later that year, the British Society of Flavourists formed, uniting food technologists and commercial enterprise in a common interest: giving every child in Britain really stinky breath.

It worked! In 1971, flavoured crisps accounted for 55 per cent of the industry’s total sales. Tudor, for one, started to treat their consumers like some unofficial focus group, as they searched for new natural and artificial flavours to help widen market penetration. ‘Special request’ edition packets were introduced, due to public demand and for overtly limited periods.

Golden Wonder crisps

Golden Wonder, meanwhile, were all over the shop. A baked bean flavour was loudly trumpeted, the product of ‘a year’s research and development’. It soon turned out a year wasn’t long enough. More successful was a branded Oxo flavour (though that too quickly faced opposition from Smiths’ Bovril flavour).

Where Golden Wonder did excel was in the savoury snack category, a fact even arch-rivals Smiths had to accept begrudgingly in the face of Wotsits’ domination. Non-potato vegetable proteins were cheaper and more plentiful, plus they could be aerated (thus filling a packet for less) and they suited the more esoteric flavours better than their subterranean counterparts. For inspiration, all Golden Wonder needed to do was look east.

An Eastern flavour 

Enter, in 1974, to the sound of a gong and that racist xylophone riff, Kung Fuey, ‘crunchy corn and potato balls with an unusual bacon and mushroom flavour’. Golden Wonder’s Oriental opportunism paid dividends, riding the crest of a wave of martial arts popularity: kids were already karate chopping piles of wood and trying to kick down walls barefoot. Now TV ad breaks were filled with Chinese stereotypes doing the same in the name of snack food.

Kung Fuey’s yellow-packed, inauthentically flavoured original was joined later by a black-clad cheese and ham variety, though this was greeted less enthusiastically and, like Bruce Lee before them, the snack went the way of the dragon.

A takeaway 

Other companies also took their starchy corn, wheat and potato creations to the takeaway in search of a taste sensation – Smiths’ Chinese flavour Quavers sort of approximated spicy beef, KP Skips dipped into a sweet ‘n’ sour sauce, and even Benson’s attempted a rudimentary prawn cracker – but the real winners were to be found wrapped in newspaper down the good old British chippy. Smiths’ much imitated Chipsticks took a patriotic approach, with packet design and TV advertising that riffed on saucy seaside postcard humour (initially aimed at an adult audience with lashings of innuendo but soon softened to kid-friendly Punch and Judy show standards).

Oily, yet moreish, these flaky, puffed-up sticks of potato and maize concealed often intense and acerbic flavours, the salt ‘n’ vinegar variety being particularly nasal. Tudor’s version, Saucy Fries, mimicked the similarly piquant tang of a bottle of HP whereas, puzzlingly, Americans would have been more familiar with Andy Capp’s Pub Fries, the distributor (Goodmark Foods) feeling that the Hartlepool-based layabout made for a good mascot. At least they weren’t Mini Chips, KP’s appallingly dry, solid spikes of potato, deemed so bland by marketers that they were sold under the tagline, ‘You can hear the taste’. When your snack product cannot be enjoyed without calling upon the assistance of another sense organ, you know it’s in trouble.

Extract taken from A Brief History of Crisps, by Steve Berry and Phil Norman, the e-book is available from Amazon.

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