Forget haute cuisine, France has a secret addiction to British crisps
I sometimes wonder if the French haven’t pulled off a successful, centuries-long trick in being thought of as world leaders in gastronomy. There is a reverence that persists around French food; la cuisine française is not to be questioned, only respected, emulated, aspired to.
But take a stroll down the snack aisle in Carrefour and you will see it is a myth. The French are just as addicted to crunchy salty junk food as we are. The orthodoxy goes that “French women are thin because they don’t eat between meals”. Right, so who’s eating all the Lay’s Saveur Bolognaise potato chips then? Just les lads, is it?
The truth is the French have long had a penchant for a greasy bag of crisps, so it’s no great surprise to hear that Europe Snacks, with its headquarters in Paris, has snapped up Plymouth (and Leicester-based) crisp maker Burts Snacks. Founded in 1997 by Richard and Linda Burt, the company launched in Devon selling upmarket crisps to independent local shops. They soon became a household name outside the South West, appearing on supermarket shelves on the posh crisps end of the snack aisle, alongside the likes of Tyrrells (once owned by the Chase family, now owned by KP Snacks) and Pipers (bought out by PepsiCo in 2019).
It used to be that the French crisp offering was low budget and petite. They were big on a bitesize cheesy biscuit, partial to a rogue maize-based treat (bacon-flavoured corn bugle, anyone?), but only had a modest range of crisp flavours. A few years ago, your options spanned from the downright plain (they love a “nature” crisp for some reason, which strangely isn’t even salty), to the odd – I love mustard as much as the next condiment devotee, but I don’t really want a crisp à la moutarde. You’d have been hard pressed to find a packet of salt and vinegar (queen of the crisp flavours, I’ll hear no arguments), but you could have got your hands on a bag of “saveur cheeseburger”, a paprika number, a poulet roti, maybe an emmental. Then it all changed.
Inevitably, as crisps became increasingly – whisper it – “artisanal” in the UK, French supermarkets followed suit. The flavours got fancier (think truffle, huile d’olive, confit balsamic onion) and British high-end mainstays, such as Tyrrells, found themselves on French shelves. These days British crisps make up a good chunk of the French crisps aisle. In fact, a bag of Tyrrells is often cheaper in France than it is in the UK; currently it’s €2.65 (£2.35) in Carrefour compared to £2.75 in Sainsbury’s. Meanwhile, in Marseille airport on Monday I was met with a display of Pipers Lye Cross Cheddar & Onion alongside the usual Lay’s Saveur Barbecue.
These days, says food writer Debora Robertson, who lives in the South of France, the savoury snack aisles in even the smallest local supermarkets are bursting at the seams. “Our Spar supermarket in the village has a big shelf of snacks, with crisps making up the largest part of that. Who knows, with the much-lauded French disdain for snacking, when anyone is eating any of these delicious crisps – but they clearly certainly are,” says Robertson.
“If you go for an apéro at a neighbour's house, a little bowl of crisps may appear. No one knows what happens to the rest of the pillow-sized bag.”
One recent study had France on a par with the United States when it came to crisp consumption; FoodBev Media found 86 per cent of people surveyed in the US and in France eat potato chips, compared to 84 per cent in the UK. On holiday, I could spend hours in the crisp aisle. I want to try every flavour – the fancier and more mad sounding the better. Wild mushroom? Sign me up. Grilled red pepper and chorizo? Pass the houmous. Aioli? One day, I’d quite like to serve individual aioli crisps as an aperitif with an anchovy curled on top of each one. “Kebab” is the only one not immediately speaking to me, but I’ll give it a go.
I love how predictably specific French crisp companies are when it comes to cheese flavours. Where in Britain you might get a “mature cheddar” and onion, in France you’ll find crisps flavoured with cheese “from the Jura”, home of Comté, Morbier, Mont d’Or. Even the most basic brands now do a goat’s cheese with Espelette pepper, or gouda with cumin. And if there’s some onion involved? It’s unlikely to be a common or garden brown onion, it’ll be “oignon de roscoff” from Brittany.
A good crisp aisle should have a mix of high and low, classics and oddities. Chip sauce flavour seems to be a big thing in France – sauce andalouse and sauce pommes frites are both popular. Bouillabaisse flavour often features. “A while ago I read about salted caramel and cappuccino crisps,” says Robertson. “I am glad to say I have never seen them in the wild.”
Most exciting of all, they have finally worked out that salt and vinegar is the greatest of all crisps. I’m yet to try “saveur spicy”, but it’s on my list for next time. I’m hoping for a cross between a Tyrrells Smoked Paprika and a Sensations Thai Sweet Chilli.
All good things come with some sacrifice in the food world though, and I’m sorry to say the pointless invention that is the lentil chip and its equally sad “healthy” cousins have also reached the continent. Even if they are daintily labelled “saveur point de sel”, I’d still rather forgo a bag of crisps entirely than munch my way through a handful of chickpea puffs. But, à chacun son goût.