Although the majority of wine snobs would rather admit to drinking boxed Pinotage than stating an unconditional fondness for fried potato chips, this ubiquitous edible is an almost perfect companion to bringing-out a fine wine’s layered complexities. For in a good potato chip, we find a warm starchy neutrality, off-set by just the correct amount of palate-coating oiliness to draw bright flavours from the wine. A slight crunchy surface where the fried potato has reached a golden crust makes things, too, pleasing on the textural front, with the incinerated edges clearing the preceding cloying oiliness, perking the mouth for the next sip of wine.
But let’s face it, frying one’s own chips is time-consuming, demanding the peeling and chopping of spuds, heating oil and tending to the deep-frying of these potato slivers. Fortunately, various take-out establishments will hand over as many chips as you would like for your next round of wine-tasting. However, the aroma of a few parcels of fatty French fries does tend to seep into the interior of the Bentley or Jag, making the vehicle take on the atmosphere of a downtown Uber, without the glum Tanzanian driver.
Be forewarned, however, that all chips are not created equal. Therefore, great effort was undertaken to guide the reader through a review of the offerings dished out by a few of the more regular commercial establishments around town.
The popular flame-grilled burger joint was once guilty of placing too much emphasis on the firing of its delicious charred patties without recognising the important role the chip plays in the offering of a balanced meal. Well, those days of oily heaps of browned potato fingers stuck together with some murky goo are over. Steers chips are of the thick-cut variety, known to me as the British Chip, fried golden brown with a crisp exterior giving way to hot, fluffy potato. There is a slight oiliness, but not of the lip-glossing variety, just a layer of fat seeped into the chip to grease the palate, ready to meet the acidic entrance of a Sauvignon Blanc or clipped Grenache.
I only have to note Wimpy here as the Swartland members of my wine-tasting group usually arrive bearing bags of chips from this ubiquitous establishment’s branch on the N7 highway. And having experienced Wimpy on various Karoo road-trips, it must be noted that the chips from this chain of eateries are actually worse than their burgers, which – for those in the know – says a lot. Pallid and lifeless, these miserable uniform sticks of pre-cooked industrial chips manage to taste worse than they appear. The crust is dry and brittle and what lies below has the consistency of used ear-buds and the taste old wine cartons. Avoid at all costs, and if you must, swallow these chips quickly with a long cold beer.
Image being everything, it is common to trash McDonald’s as hell’s own commercial diner without ever having actually been inside one or tasted its wares. Sorry to spoil the party and to let a positive light shine on such a piece of crass American consumer symbolism, but the chips are super. These are real French fries, cut thin and spiky as a Kardashian’s nails, but without any dirt underneath. The fries are hot and firm, with an agreeable crust bordering on golden-brown. The crust-to-interior ratio, due to the slender chip, makes for a satisfying nibble. A slight oiliness and a taste of animal fat, plus the unquestionable deliciousness of warm potato, makes this a great chip for general use, as well as for accompanying a wine. Think buttery Chardonnay of a brooding, succulent Shiraz.
This South African franchise should be reported for high treason to generations of patriots who grew up supporting the brand. Gone are the days of tasty agreeable hand-cut Spur chips which you could hold between your thumb and forefinger while a blob of Spur Sauce hung in precarious deliciousness from the chip’s fore-quarter. Ordering a take-out portion of chips from one of these operations today shows that provenance and legacy mean nothing in the Spur value-set. Today’s chips are pale, having been pre-frozen to a state of soul-destroying oblivion. The Spur’s motto of “a taste for life” could not possibly apply to its chips, unless its idea of life is a funeral march or an after-dinner speech by Cyril Ramaphosa. If you must eat these chips, better have a great Cabernet Sauvignon of Champagne with it as there is nothing else to make the experience worth noting or remembering.
Unlike Spur, Nando’s shows some respect for its South African heritage by presenting chips as this nation of great gastronomes like them. The potatoes are cut lekker thick, like, and frying commences in oil hot enough to take the heat out of a Molotov cocktail. This gives the chip a surface which is sometimes more brown than golden, but imparts an umami-like smoky savouriness into the deeper flesh of the soothing warm potato. Some of the edges have a delightful crispiness, lending a satisfying crunch to a wine-tasting. And this requires wooded Sauvignon Blanc or a deep red, full-bodied Pinot Noir.
The only thing that could make a KFC potato fry taste worse than it does in its natural state is to allow some of this global fast-food brand’s chicken to depart its ghastly crumbed-greasiness on the chip. However, on its own the KFC chip is another example of neutered sterility deployed in the offering of what should be a pleasurable eating experience from a take-out joint. This chip is pale and lifeless with a flavour one would expect to find in a ration meal-kit for space travellers who needed further motivation for moving from earth to another planet. After relentless chewing, the taste of pre-fabricated potato gives way to an industrial taste of card-board and printing ink, the origin of which I still have to discover. Until then, down a Tawny Port or Sherry to help you forget that these chips are down.
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