Philippa James pays a visit to Fiddler's Lancashire Crisps in Rufford
PUBLISHED: 01:16 17 October 2011 | UPDATED: 12:06 28 February 2013
Food writer Philippa James samples the latest addition to the selection of local produce, crisps from Rufford
Furtively creeping to my car at 2.30am, while writing this article, made me realise that I am a woman, with a problem. Worrying thoughts of checking into re-hab crossed my mind, as I reached behind the drivers seat for the smartly liveried bag. I returned to my computer, quietly ripped the packet open, and sampled my first Fiddlers Lancashire Crisps.
I am, I have to point out, something of a crisp aficionado. One of my early memories is of calling with my dad at Popes Stores, in Maghull, and him letting me choose my bag of crisps. Oh, the crunch of crisps on thinly buttered white bread clutched in my eager little fist!
The Fiddler family have grown potatoes, carrots, leeks, cabbage and cereals around the Rufford area for 50 years, the last 30 at the farm on Brick Kiln Lane. The place is easily identified, it has a farm shop selling their own produce, and a warning sign Free range children of which there are three, Andrew, 14, Kate, 11, and three-year-old Charlotte, the tiny crisp-muncher of the family who has a particular fondness for salt and vinegar.
John and Judith Fiddler, along with Johns brother Robert and parents Robert senior and Linda, have been working under wraps for three years on their diversification. So secret, in fact, was the move into farm-made crisps, that when production machinery arrived on the farm, the children were led to believe it was new equipment for pre-washing and packing the potato crop more efficiently!
One of the key points to the success of these premium-quality crisps was the choice of suitable potatoes, all grown on the 200 acre arable farm; test crops led to the choice of three varieties Lady Rosetta, Hermes and Saturna all chosen for their suitability as crisps. John said: Its quite interesting and exciting, were no longer dealing with just raw products any more.
Once happy with the main ingredient, the family set out to source local, natural famous tastes of Lancashire. Flavourings currently come from cheese made at Preston, Ellseys malt vinegar from Wigan, and Lancashire Sauce from Ramsbottom. John hopes to add chilli flavour, using chillies from a Tarleton nursery, and added: We want people to know exactly where these crisps have come from.
So outstanding is this newest of Lancashire products that customers are now calling the farm with their praise. One lady in her 80s said shed not tasted crisps like these since her childhood.
John commented that the only complaint theyve had is that, unlike mass-produced crisps, these which are cooked in small batches are very delicate in flavour, so letting the quality of the potato shine out.
I absolutely applaud the whole of the Fiddler Lancashire Crisps ethos; the potatoes are grown on the farm, washed and graded here, then transported across the yard to the purpose-built, state-of-the-art production facility.
In the kitchen area the potatoes are manually tipped into a hopper, checked for any flaws, then peeled, sliced and dropped into sunflower oil where they are stirred regularly in their seven minute frying to prevent them clumping together. They then go on to a vibrator to remove excess oil and then into the flavour drum, where spray-dried local additives enhance the natural taste.
Next the crisps are metal-detected, weighed, bagged, displaying whether it was John, or Robert who produced the individual batch, and boxed, all in the same building, where the office is also situated. The family work very closely together with tight control of their supply chain and deliveries are made within 48 hours.
And Johns sister Rose isnt left out of the foodie diversification, either. She uses two farm buildings as a bakery where she produces bread, cakes, pies, jams and chutneys.
The hands on nature of the sales and delivery made me smile when, three days after meeting the family, I bumped into John at Huntleys Farm Shop in Samlesbury with the company just two weeks old they are already installing themselves in delis, pubs and farm shops.
They are also starting to knock well established, national crisp company names off the shelves, with their superb, hand cooked on our farm quality. This is one local success story which looks to have taken on the current economic crunch, quite literally.
Bags of history
It is believed that crisps were invented by George Crum, a chef at the elegant Moon Lake Lodges restaurant in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1853.
Apparently a customer regularly complained that his French fried potatoes, popularised in 1700s France and brought over to the USA by Thomas Jefferson, who was ambassador to the country, were too thick and soggy, so George set out on a mission to slice a potato so thinly then cook it, so that it wasnt possible to be eaten with a fork.
The idea back-fired as, instead of annoying the customer, he loved the new wafer thin potatoes, and they appeared on the menu as Saratoga Crisps!
George died in 1914, at the age of 92. He lived long enough to see crisps go into retail production. Many people had the idea of selling this popular snack item, but credit for the first real commercial production lays with William Tappendon of Cleveland, in 1895. He started making potato chips in his kitchen and delivering to local stores, he later converted a barn in the rear of his house into one of the first potato chip factories in the world.
The invention of a mechanical potato peeler, in 1920s proved a major leap forwards in production, significantly speeding up the whole process. Technology moved on, and waxed bags gave crisps a longer shelf life.
Crisps remain an incredibly popular snack, and have diversified in flavour and even the raw ingredients over the years I had fun with some children, making parsnip, beetroot and carrot crisps at one event, and they were eaten very quickly.