If A baked potato is sensible and solid, then a chip is its wild, fun and decadent cousin. It is indulgent, shapely and, one imagines, very tasty. It is the sex symbol of the potato world.
But looks are not everything and the true chip connoisseur seeks deeper virtues, such as texture, smell and the impression left on the palate.
Like much else, chips are variable, sometimes deceptive, as our tasters found out. But they can also be wonderful.
The pundits tell you to use thick-cut chips to absorb fat when cooking; to fry only once and in oil at the right temperature (180ºC); to use freeze/chilled chips, so you can cook them from chilled. This takes less time and oil than from frozen.
Much of the advice is common sense. For example, if you buy the best quality chip, it will contain less water, which will save on both oil and cooking time, because water breaks down the cooking oil, thus using more oil, and this takes longer to cook out.
One is urged to cook only half a basket of chips in one shot to allow total immersion. You should not keep lifting out the basket, as this lowers the oil temperature and results in uneven frying, and you should never salt the chips over the oil. What appears, at first, to be a simple, straightforward food involves a complex, delicate cooking process.
On board a Seafrance ferry travelling from Dover to France earlier this month, the Chef team and a selection of tasters sampled a range of frozen and chilled chips.
Gulping water between each portion and filling in their questionnaires, the five tasters sniffed, prodded, nibbled and scribbled their way through the 90-minute journey as the vessel plied its way across to the French coast, where chip becomes pomme frite. All the products were tasted blind.
What Makes The Ideal Chip?
Each was assessed on the following criteria:
Steve Pette, general manager at Bass Taverns' original All Bar One in Sutton, Surrey, says that many of his customers come in specifically for a plate of chips.
All Bar One offers a generous plate of shoestring fries (£1.50) and the 114-seat outlet works through 20 cases of chips a week. Customers in this Surrey commuter town fall mainly into the 21-40 age group of ABC1s. They recognise the basics of quality and value for money, but, with a 75% profit margin on this item, Pette recognises a lucrative product when he sees one.
As manager of the mid-range Bridge Hotel in Greenford, Middlesex, Paul Berloth oversees a three-tier catering operation. Tastes vary between the hotel's bar, its à la carte restaurant and the conference and banqueting facilities.
Dutch-born Berloth feeds 300 customers a day, but the clientele profile spans blue-collar workers and senior management. Average spend in the restaurant is £17, while the usual spend on bar food is around £4.50. Sixty per cent of bar meals include chips and the average customer expenditure on chips hits about £1.50.
Customer demand in the bar means that chips are of the hand-hewn, home-made ilk, while restaurant diners are served bought-in, American-style thin fries.
Fellow Dutchman Jurrien Christiaans, general manager with Bexley Council's catering services, serves a vast customer base of 10,000 per day. This spans school and welfare catering, as well as the more sophisticated venues linked to civic and mayoral functions.
Chips usually appear during the borough caterer's lunchtime services and fetch, on average, 60p per diner. All chips are bought in and include chilled and frozen, straight-cut and shoestring varieties.
Speciality spiral fries and hand-cut, traditional chunky chips are what customers at the Old Mill Hotel in Harnham, near Salisbury, enjoy.
Chips are taken seriously there. Chef-proprietor Roy Thwaites looks for a crispy exterior, a fluffy inner texture and low fat retention. Serving a mix of punters, from local residents and business people through to tourists, his business includes both a restaurant and a free house.
Thwaites normally feeds 200 customers a day, with the average spend on chips topping £1.40. The typical restaurant meal charge is £15-£20 a head, with bar meals averaging about £6.
Representing Seafrance, who hosted the tasting, is Janice Graydon, a secretary to one of the directors of this Calais-based company. The car ferry company sports self-service, brasserie, pubs and café-style outlets and serves, on average, 750 customers a day. These are a mix of car and lorry drivers, as well as foot passengers.
Average customer spend is about £2 and, although no specific figure is available for chips, these are sold only in the self-service venues. The company buys only frozen chips and these are bought in France.
As the ferry glides away from Kent's famous white cliffs, the tasting starts. Accompanying Paul Berloth is Paul Jeffreys, executive chef with brewer Young & Co, of which the Bridge Hotel is a tenant.
Jeffreys knows his chips and his enthusiasm is infectious.
Soon a conversation starts on how chilled chips taste better than frozen, yet all recognise that the constraints of storage space make frozen a more practical option.
The winning chips
Tasters agreed that chips should look appealing, with a good golden colour and a fresh potato taste.
In the tasters' opinion, two products stood out: Sunny Chips (made from Agria potatoes) and Lord Chips (made from Bintje potatoes), both produced by De Fritesspecialist.
Both products had a good, even colouring with a home-made appearance. The taste of oil was minimal and the chips were fairly crunchy on the outside and light and fluffy inside. One of the tasters commented: "Real chips at last!"