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From humble spud to golden ticket Caroline Aston tracks the small wonder that earned Market Harborough a place in snack history


EPTEMBER – and soon, we hope, all will be safely gathered in, as harvest time continues apace. Fields will yield up the fruits of farming, so let’s hear it for the potato, or, more particularly, for that humble tuber’s offspring, the crisp! Interestingly, one particular brand of that moreish snack food has strong links with our very own Market Harborough. But first, some history…The saga of the spud goes back centuries: Latin name ‘Solanum tuberosum’, the fourth-largest food crop in the world has been cultivated for thousands of years, and originally by Inca tribes in Peru. In 1536 the Spanish conquered Peru, took a shine to potatoes and brought them back to Europe. By the end of the 16th century the families of Basque sailors were growing the crop on the Biscay coast of Northern Spain, and Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to Ireland in 1589, establishing a 40,000-acre plantation near Cork. Four decades later the vegetable had found favour throughout Europe, but almost 300 years went by before the crisp was born. Chef William Kitchiner published his recipe book The Cook’s Oracle in 1817. A best-seller in England and the US it listed a dish described as “potatoes fried in slices or shavings”. Kitchiner recommended that the slices should be a quarter of an inch thick, or, alternatively, that the potato be peeled in a continuous strip and fried in lard or oil. I, however, prefer a rather more dramatic version of the crisp’s creation. In 1853 chef George Crum was working in Saratoga Springs, New York, at the upmarket Moon’s Lake House restaurant, where his thick-cut fries were a speciality. One night a picky customer returned his chips to the kitchen, complaining that they were too thick. Crum’s second effort was also sent back, which didn’t go down well with the short-tempered chef. As a pointed joke Crum produced a third batch too thin to be eaten with a fork – and the finicky eater loved them! The crisp, which was marketed as Saratoga Chips, was born and it has never looked back! (Mr Crum didn’t either and by 1860 he was the proud owner of his own lakeside eaterie.)



And so to Market Harborough… In August 2013 the Mercado Lounge opened in Edinburgh House, on Abbey Street. Part of a successful nationwide chain, the Harborough version occupies what was once the headquarters of the well-known crisp brand Golden Wonder. Back in 1947, the year our Queen married Prince Philip, a Scottish baker had a lightbulb moment about how to increase his profits. William Alexander’s business was based in Stockbridge, near Edinburgh, and his plan was simple: all his baking was done by lunchtime, so he decided to make crisps in the afternoon. The potato variety Alexander chose as his raw material was the “Golden Wonder”. The firm of the same name was founded in 1957 and by 1960 Golden Wonder had become the leading Scottish brand of crisps. By the time they created their ready-salted nibbles, they rang the death knell for that little twist of blue paper containing salt that was popularly found in crisp packets at that time. Two years later the company introduced crisps with a flavour: cheese and onion. In 1964 Corby became the site of the biggest crisp and snack factory in the world. A year later, to make sure its best-sellers retained their crunch, Golden Wonder produced “Crackle Fresh” packaging. As England won the 1966 World Cup the nation was chomping through millions of 5p-a-pop bags of what was then the national leading brand of crisp, with Golden Wonder the fifth-largest grocery brand in Britain. The “Wotsit” was introduced in 1970 and the “Ringo” in 1972. During the long, hot summer of 1976 Golden Wonder nearly lost its potato stocks due to drought – wholesale prices soared, and there was such a shortage that Parliament debated forcing the crisp companies to sell their spuds to ease things. Sadly, there was a huge fire at the Corby factory in 1988 – it took six months to get back into production, by which point the brand had lost its market leadership to Walkers. But Market Harborough was once the epicentre of potato-based fortune, so remember that as you bite into those addictive little crunchy discs of deliciousness that are crisps!

Rutland Living Sept 2017  
Rutland Living Sept 2017