Tradition vs. Modernity in Chip Frying
Easily the best type of museum is the kind that’s truly immersive, where all the exhibits are of a scale where you can enter and explore for yourself. The way really to appreciate how people lived in the past is to experience it. This is especially true when it comes to food. Food is a particularly tricky thing to deal with in a museum, after all a way of viewing things that is almost entirely about looking. Even while museums have become increasingly “hands on”, there isn’t a great deal of movement towards becoming “tongues on”. But there should be, because only then can people properly understand the food of the past. There’s even been proper research in the British Journal of Psychology to suggest museums with period appropriate smells help people to remember what they’ve learnt.
Beamish, the massive 300 acre Living Museum of the North, is one place that has fully embraced the multisensory possibilities of historical engagement. Its advertising promises to give the museum’s visitors a quite literal “taste of the past”, thanks to the recent addition of a period appropriate chip shop to the Beamish’s early 20th century pit village. In a BBC documentary covering the difficulties of building a functioning historic kitchen and restaurant (a sort of Grand Designs meets Time Team), Beamish’s curator described the concept as: “It’s the smell, the taste, the sight. It isn’t going around looking at the world’s oldest chip range in a glass case”. That’s just the kind of thing that I think more museums should be doing, so I was excited to get a look (and a taste) for myself.
Davy’s, the shop is named after the former owners of the aforementioned oldest chip range in the world, uses the traditional method of a range with a coal fire to cook the chips in vats of dripping. Naturally this means that there are inevitably a few compromises between historical accuracy and modern health and safety concerns, not to mention the upkeep of the museum’s collections. That oldest chip range is not actually in use, it’s simply on display, while the actual business of food preparation falls to some authentic but more recent ranges. Although the ranting ‘elf and safety gone mad’ (one of the visitors I talked to genuinely used those exact words to me) brigade’s chip on their shoulder – pun intentional – about the lack of old newspaper wrappings these days is catered for thanks to Davy’s serving in reproduction newspaper of the time.
On that subject, though, the chap behind the counter, dressed in pre-First World War garb and demonstrating a traditional chipping machine, pointed out that this is actually a rather more recent tradition. “Real Edwardians would bring their own plate” he told us, they didn’t wrap their chips in newspaper. In this case the museum is catering more for a nostalgic, imagined view of the past held by their visitors than the real deal of the turn of the century chip shop. Well, that and a realisation that contemporary museum visitors are unlikely to bring their own big plate like Alan Partridge at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Talking of catering to nostalgia, the reminiscence value of the dripping cooked chips certainly appeared to have an effect on the way the people tasting them responded. The traditional cooking methods can cause a waiting time of well over an hour and, in my many visits, I’ve noted a slightly variable quality in the finished product – ranging from delicious to a little limp and soggy. However, for most people all of that seemed to be overruled by the “taste of the past” on offer. Talking to the museum visitors, the vast majority of them told me that the coal fired, dripping cooked chips were noticeably better than their modern equivalents. (It’s probably worth mentioning that these conversations were part of the research for my Masters thesis, I wouldn’t advise just randomly badgering other museum visitors without the museum’s consent). Anyway, over 100 people expressed some opinion comparing Davy’s chips to 21st century ones and around ¾ told me Davy’s was better. Here’s that information expressed in suitably gastronomic pie form.
However, I feel inclined not entirely to trust these results. For one thing, people’s opinions may have been more formed by the nostalgia and the feeling of a special event created by the museum. One of those 77 who expressed positive views admitted: “I think the atmosphere and the smell and the experience of going through has an effect”. Equally, these people aren’t really making the same comparison. They may all be eating Davy’s chips, but their frame of reference in the modern world isn’t going to be the same. The few people who didn’t like Davy’s chips as much as elsewhere did so because they had a particular favourite chippy back home, whereas those that preferred Davy’s chips made suggestions like: “Often these days they’re made from potato starch squeezed through machines”, implying a less positive experience of modern chips. All of which suggests the need for an experiment of my own, namely a blind taste test to find whether chips cooked in dripping in the traditional style really are better than those cooked in oil using modern methods.
“Modern methods” is a pretty loose term, though, so probably needs some settling on something more specific. If we’re going to compare the best chips on offer in 1913 with those in 2013, then the 2013 ones will have to be the best showcase for 21st century chip manufacture as well. The precise molecular gastronomy involved in the frying of triple-cooked chips offers a very 21st century alternative, so it is this method I chose to use to compete with the traditional dripping frying, eventually leading to giving the two as a blind taste test to Professor Plum.
Triple-cooked chips have become a staple of any bistro or pub that aspires to something greater than your run of the mill pub grub. The idea was pioneered by Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck and it’s one of the earliest examples of his search for perfection. In his book Heston Blumenthal at Home he expounds on his experiments to remove moisture from chips, allowing them to crisp up around the outside. “I went to extraordinary lengths to try to combat the problem,” he says, “oven-drying chips or even individually pin-pricking them to get rid of excess moisture”. In the end, though, he suggests two things – utilising the air drying abilities of the freezer, and doing that in between two separate fryings of the chips (the third “cooking” in “triple-cooked” is the initial boiling of the potatoes).
The theory is that the first frying, at a lower temperature of 130˚C, causes the starch in the chip’s surface cells to combine to create a rigid outer layer. This will then withstand the stronger temperature of the second frying, 180˚C, making the final chips turn golden and preventing the kind of sogginess that I did occasionally notice in the chips served at Beamish.
To make it fair, I took the same set of potatoes, sliced them into chips, boiled them on a medium heat for around 25 minutes and then let them dry, before putting them into the freezer. That way both sets of chips were coming from the same starting point. Only then did I separate them into Edwardian dripping cooked chips and modern oil cooked chips. The modern method chips I removed after an hour, fried in oil at 130˚C and returned to the freezer for another hour. After that second hour, I put two pans side by side, melted the dripping in one and heated the oil to 180˚C in the other, deep frying both sets of chips for about 5-10 minutes for the final taste test.
So, how did they turn out? As you can probably tell from this picture, the colouring of the two chip varieties in the experiment varied wildly. Type A, the very pale yellow looking ones on the left, were the dripping cooked chips, while Type B, the much browner, crispier kind on the right, were the triple-cooked ones. Predictably, then the triple-cooked had a much crisper texture. To that extent, the Heston Blumenthal method proved a success. The extra frying stage did indeed allow a crispier outer layer to form around the softer middle, leaving the 21st century chips smooth on the inside and crunchy on the outside, like an armadillo, or a well-cooked roastie. The Edwardian style, however, remained slightly softer right through, whilst not soggy.
That’s a success for modern methods in terms of texture, then, but with flavour the dripping definitely made a difference, giving the Edwardian style chips a hint of beefy taste that added to what the oil in the modern chips could offer. A perfect example would, therefore, double-fry the chips using the Heston method, but using dripping to fry it in.
And the blind taste test? Professor Plum reported that she’d have struggled to tell which of the two was which and that it was, therefore, hard to place one above the other. In the end, though, she plumped for Type A as better in every respect. So, there are at least some things where it may indeed be true that they did it better back then.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: Mmmm, chips. Though I often cheat when doing them myself and just bung some diced potato straight into the oven (don’t even blanch it!), it’s hard to beat a good, deep fried chip. Would love to try the drippings ones Heston style, though it’s a lot of effort. Maybe next time we have friends over.