Dean Bailey heads north to find chipped potato perfection
Debate has raged for a long time in the Appetite kitchen about the qualities of the perfect chip. Some argue for fries – skinny, crisp and small enough to be eaten by the handful. Others champion the chunkier variety – fluffy in the centre and triple-cooked for a deeply flavoured, dark golden exterior.
Unable to find a consensus, we decided to pass the question on to an expert – fourth-generation potato farmer Mark Robson of Particularly Good Potatoes in Wooler.
The man leading the Messrs Robson potato business and a new venture, Particularly Good Potatoes, which produces chipped products for restaurants and chippies, is following in the footsteps of his parents Judy and Mark and drawing on the knowledge of his great-grandmother, who started growing potatoes during the war. He’s also working with his children, Will, Kitty and Alastair, passing on that knowledge to the next generation of Robsons.
For Mark, there are key elements for a good chip. First are the seeds. The ones grown on the family’s farms in North Northumberland are of five varieties, each chosen for taste, texture and colour when fried. They’re planted in March and April and harvested in September and October.
Each variety’s journey from storage to chipping production line is based on its unique ageing process. Some can be picked from the field, processed, chipped and bagged within 10 minutes, while others need to be stored and chipped later. The combination of varieties provides a consistent product throughout the year.
Mark’s inherited 90-plus years of growing knowledge is essential, as is the North Northumberland farmland where the potatoes are grown. The varieties grown here, particularly those destined to be chipped, would struggle further north than the Forth Bridge and fail to thrive in the shorter summer days of southern England.
While that knowledge, and an enviable location, gives Mark’s potatoes a head start, a drive here to make chipped products more environmentally friendly is a big selling point too.
Potatoes grown on the farms here can be processed and packaged metres from the field. Particularly Good potatoes travel direct from field to storage, and 100 metres from there to the chipping operation to be washed, chipped and bagged ready for delivery to restaurants and chip shops.
The chipping plant also manages the starch which escapes during the process, capturing it to be spread on fields as fertiliser or fed to cattle as a supplement. Peelings are delivered next door to Doddington Farm, home of renowned cheese and ice cream, where they are used for feed, while water is put through a hydro-cyclone to remove the starch before being stored and used for fertigation on the fields.
“The environmental impact of potatoes can be huge,” says Mark. “Many businesses import a product from Spain, Egypt or Canada which is often grown using exported seeds which are exactly the same as we use here.
“Even for us, a large amount of our crop travels to be processed and packaged; but doing some of that ourselves can make a difference to the environment and our local economy.
“We’ve also got the benefit of all our team walking the 400 yards to work from Wooler – it doesn’t get much more local than that.”
So we’ve found perfect potatoes and chipped them – what about cooking them? Mark and his team have tried many methods, sometimes multiple ones on the same potato. Mark’s favourite is a 20mm chunky chip, triple-cooked as at the The Potted Lobster, Bamburgh. Operations manager Barbara Morris prefers a 14mm chip cooked once and quickly, as at Trenchers in The Spanish City, Whitley Bay. Business development manager Jack Cuddigan likes a chunky 20mm chip cooked two or three times.
Since production started in April 2019, some 20% of Robson’s potatoes have been distributed from Wooler as chipped products. That’s a lot of chips grown and chipped in Northumberland rather than shipped here.
We may not have reached a consensus on the best chip, but we do have perfect potatoes to try all the options with.