Ever wondered how crisps are made? Especially how a small independent company can set up & survive in this competitive market in the recession. Alan visited Corkers Crisps farm & factory in Cambridgeshire to find out.
The Corkers crisp story is an interesting one. Friends since teenage, the company owners, Ross Taylor and Rod Garnham have a spark between them that’s lively and bright; there’s something of a comedy duo about them. Rod initially had a career in aircraft engineering, working abroad much of the time. Ross had helped on the family 500-acre Cambridgeshire fenland farm, near Ely, from the age of 10 until he was 17, at which point he decided he needed to move on and do something different. Ross bought a van which was effectively the start of the transport business he still owns, with a fleet of 70 vans.
Potato farming is to a large extent at the mercy of wholesalers who state their price per tonne to buy the crop from the farmer, there appears little room for negotiation. On occasion when there’s a customer complaint, the wholesaler can retrospectively reduce the agreed price leaving the farmer with the option of accepting the reduced price or paying for the return of their produce, which is an unenviable position.
It was this scenario and the onset of the recession that led to Ross and Rod thinking of ways in which the potatoes grown on the farm might turn a better profit. Ross was aware that the potatoes they grew were excellent, they’re from the maris piper family and they have branded them Naturalo, wanting to find a name that distinguished them from other potatoes, as they have a unique flavour from their growing and storage conditions, including that of their seed stock. The soil in which they grow is very dark, almost black and peaty, it’s land where oak trees previously grew and this impacts on the flavour of the potato. Because the soil is very soft the potatoes aren’t constrained by it and can develop all sorts of shapes and sizes, so they’re not as uniform as potatoes you might buy in the supermarket.
The Naturalo potato is ideally suited to roasting or frying and in seeking to avoid the vagaries of the potato wholesaler, Ross and Rod started supplying fish and chip shops direct and continue to have a successful market doing this nationwide. This was an ideal outlet as the shape of the potato is unimportant, the way it cooks and its flavour is, however, paramount.
I’ve tried roasting the Naturalo potato, some with washed skins on and some peeled, having coated them in the smallest amount of vegetable oil and sprinkled with a little salt and ground black pepper. They turned out remarkably well, with a crunchy exterior and a fluffy interior that’s slightly sweet with a roast chestnut flavour coming through and an earthiness to them. I loved them but the flavour was much more intense in those that I’d left the skins on. I can see they’d make great chips and amazingly flavoursome baked potatoes.
I found out some interesting facts about potatoes during my visit. When it comes to harvesting, the potatoes are left in the ground for four weeks after the plant has died which allows the skins to ‘set’. Once harvested they are stored in dry conditions for four to six weeks for ‘curing’ when they dry and their skins harden, they are then moved to moisture controlled storage where the temperature is maintained at between 7 and 15 degrees centigrade. This way, provided they are left as they came out of the ground and not washed, they will have a storage life of many months. Once a potato has been washed it has a shelf life of seven days and this is why potatoes that you buy off the supermarket shelves, which have been washed and polished, start to sprout and deteriorate if you don’t use them within a week. Also, potatoes should never be refrigerated, as this results in the starch turning into sugars, changing the potato’s structure and the way it reacts to cooking. So perhaps we should all be looking for unwashed potatoes, and storing them in similar conditions if we want them to be at their best when we come to use them.
It was during a skiing trip in 2008 that the idea for Corkers crisps arose. They’d had a ‘rubbish’ bag of crisps, in their words, while having après-ski drinks and decided they could make better, so when they returned to the UK they set about making crisps with the Naturalo potato, using a domestic deep fat fryer and they were excellent. Soon after, they washed and took a load of the potatoes to a crisp manufacturer in London, to have some made in a more professional environment.
On tasting the crisps made with the Naturalo potato, the manufacturer wanted to buy the whole crop to make their crisps. Ross and Rod quickly realised that they had something really special. They spent the next 12 months developing flavours, packaging and setting up machinery and in 2010 they took samples to the Speciality and Fine Food Fair at which Harvey Nichols representatives sampled their crisps and wanted to market them exclusively. The Corkers brand was launched in 2011.
So what makes Corkers crisps special? Well it’s the potato of course, but also the way it’s cooked. They’re lighter than other varieties of crisp on the market, they have a tendency to ripple and develop interesting shapes during the cooking process, the agitation of which is done by hand. They’re cooked in sunflower oil for up to ten minutes at a varying temperature and this results in a crisp that’s light with a good crispy crunch to it.
Corkers has a growing market; as well as still supplying Harvey Nichols, they also supply to eight Waitrose stores in Cambridgeshire and have contracts to supply 22,000 packs per week to the East Coast railway line and 25-30,000 20g packs per week to British Airways, they’ve also struck a deal with 40 theatres. The 40g packs retail for 80p to £1 per pack. Asked how they wanted to grow their business, apart from telling me that they wanted to be the first company to launch their crisps into space – which they’ve already achieved with the help of students from Cambridge University – they said that they wanted become the country’s number one producer, but continue to retain a niche market supplying high end outlets nationwide; a fairly bold target, but one that appears to me to be achievable.