Rarely can I refuse a crisp, be it a hand-cut 'game chip' in a swanky, darkly lit hotel bar or a packet of Walkers' cheese-and-onion down the pub. I would like to say that this is solely because of the flavour of the ethereally light, amber-coloured potato that shatters instantly on the tongue, but in truth it's probably just the salt that does it. That, and the pleasure of eating anything fried to a rustling crispness.
I am old enough to remember crisps before they were ready-salted, when the seasoning came in little twists of blue waxed paper which you undid and shook into the bag. Yet my real fondness is for the Golden Wonder roast chicken crisp, circa 1975. It was rather like eating a chicken stock cube directly from the wrapper - and so packed with MSG I used to go red from head to foot.
The modern commercial crisp is the illegitimate son of the game chip - that elegant, transparently thin accompaniment to roast pheasant, turkey or grouse. No one in their right mind would make game chips nowadays. Tick-tock, tick-tock, life's too short and all that, but there is something splendidly satisfying about frying your own. You need large, floury potatoes, the sort you use for baking or chips. They seem to crisp up best when they are sliced paper-thin on a mandolin, that lethal piece of equipment, which, like a Chinese cleaver brings me out in a cold sweat.
Game chips need to be fried in the hottest oil, and unlike thicker chips, they require just the one dip in the pan. Salt is essential. And as long as they are thin enough and large enough, anyone is unlikely to assume your hand-made crisps are from the packet, but I would still make sure everyone knows you made them yourself, otherwise you will find yourself in tears at the speed with which they disappear.
I reckon the best commercial crisp is Burts. Burts is a small Devon-based family company that fries nothing less than the perfect potato crisp. Neither too dark nor too salty, and as thin and fragile as a dragonfly's wing, this is the nearest you will get to a traditional handmade game chip. Each packet tells you who fried its contents, so I find myself rifling through the box for the bag that says 'fried by Roger'. Though Nick's are pretty good, too.
Crisps arrive at my door almost as often as pizza flyers. In the midst of writing this piece, the most upmarket of all arrived with its own chauffeur. Duchy Originals Vegetable Crisps, for that is what they were, are delicately flavoured handmade crisps made with HRH the Prince of Wales's own Chioggia beet, Nairobi carrots and Hercules Parsnips. OK, they're not a patch on my memory of the Golden Wonder roast chicken flavour but then, how could I possibly refuse.
Potato and parmesan cake
Potatoes cut thinly are not only good when deep fried, but can be blissful when cooked with stock or butter till they are sodden and meltingly soft. I wanted a sliced-potato dish that had the simplicity of pommes boulangère but something of the richness of its creamier cousin pommes à la dauphinoise. This is what I have come up with; thinly sliced potatoes layered with garlic, butter and grated Parmesan. Savoury, melting and yes, rich, they are a near perfect with cold roast lamb or beef.
900g-1kg waxy-fleshed potatoes
2 cloves of garlic
30g finely grated Parmesan cheese
Peel the potatoes then slice them thinly. I do this by hand, but if you have a mandolin you can do it in a matter of seconds. The rounds should be thin enough that you can almost see through them.
Melt the butter in a small pan. Peel the garlic then crush it or if you prefer, chop it finely.
Smooth a little of the melted butter over the base of a shallow baking dish or small cast-iron frying pan and cover it with some of the potato slices, overlapping them slightly. Pour on a little more butter then season with salt, garlic, black pepper and a good dusting of Parmesan. Cover that with a further layer of potatoes, more seasonings, garlic and Parmesan, then continue layering until you have used all the potatoes. Finish with butter and a light dusting of Parmesan.
Bake in a preheated oven at 220°C/gas mark 7, pressing the cake down from time to time very firmly once or twice with a large fish slice. After 45-50 minutes, you should have a deep golden potato cake sizzling around its edges. Remove from the oven and leave it to calm down for a few minutes before serving. Serves 4.
Proper, wafer-thin game chips for serving with game birds. OK, you could open a packet of crisps, but these are a much more impressive alternative. But serve them only to those who will appreciate them.
2 large floury potatoes
deep groundnut oil for frying
Peel, then slice the potatoes very thinly. A mandolin or the cucumber slicing blade of the grater is best for this. They should be as thin as a wafer. As you slice, drop them into deep, cold water.
Bring a deep pan of frying oil to 190°C. Dry the potatoes thoroughly then fry them for a couple of minutes till crisp and pale gold. Drain them on kitchen paper and season generously with salt. Enough for 4.
A potato supper
There is much comfort, warmth, solace and satiety in a bowl of starch, especially in cold weather. This one has the benefit of stock, too, providing either a simple supper or an accompaniment to a roast.
waxy potatoes - about 5 small ones per person
oil - a little groundnut or light olive
butter - just a little for buttering the dish and a few knobs on top
bacon or pancetta - about 2 thin rashers per person
stock - a good chicken one, but Marigold bouillon will do
sage leaves, 1 per person
Set the oven at 180°C/gas mark 4. If the fine, pale skin doesn't bother you, there is no need to peel the potatoes, but you should give them a good wipe. Whatever, you need to slice them no thicker than a pound coin. Warm enough oil to cover the bottom of a frying pan, then fry the sliced potatoes in it just long enough to colour them lightly on both sides. Lift them out on to kitchen paper.
Generously butter a shallow baking dish or roasting tin. Cut the bacon into pieces about the size of a postage stamp. Layer the potatoes in the buttered dish, scattering the bacon, sage and a grinding of salt and black pepper over them as you go. Dot the surface with a few little knobs of butter, then pour over enough stock to cover. Bake in the preheated oven for about an hour, until the potatoes are soft enough to crush between your fingers.