This post is not about beer, but it is about one of beer’s close companions – crisps.
Was it a distant memory, or a strange dream?
I'm sitting in my parents’ car outside a provincial post office, probably 6 years old. In my hands is a pale green crisp packet. At the time, Golden Wonder produced a spring onion flavour in similar packaging – itself an all but forgotten flavour – and I assumed that’s what I’d been handed. But on closer inspection, the brand wasn't Golden Wonder, but Walker’s. And the flavour was, in fact, pickled onion.
I can’t remember tasting them, although I'm sure I’d have been a fan since, even as a child, I loved sour flavours and rarely ate anything unless it was soaked in lashings of malt vinegar. But then Walker’s pickled onion flavour disappeared completely. It was at least a decade before I saw another packet and, in the meantime, I begun to question whether they’d ever existed at all.
What’s baffling about the Walker’s pickled onion situation is that a company of this size would bother to put a particular product on the market, but barely distribute it. At one time, their treatment of their Worcestershire sauce flavoured products revealed a similarly cavalier attitude; they were so scarcely seen that enthusiasts like myself were wise to purchase a packet whenever possible, because the next sighting might be months away. They seem to have seen the light in this instance, and Walker’s Worcestershire sauce crisps can now thankfully be found with relative ease.
Meanwhile, that lime-green packet that featured in my childhood memory remains scarcely seen. The rarity of the pickled onion flavour is such that some people baulk at the suggestion of it even existing. But it pops up in weird places; Brighton bagel shop Bagelman stocks them, for example, as does the student union shop on the Sussex university campus, but next to no corner shops or supermarkets. I found them in an off license in Hove once, but when I returned for more, they were gone. When a work colleague told me he had a friend who worked for a crisp distribution company, I asked him to enquire as to what the hell was going on, but I think he forgot. So no closure there.
I posed the question to Google one day and found I was not the only one frustrated by these fruitless searches. When some frustrated consumers set up a forum by the name Ripped Off Britain, it must have seemed inevitable that a brave user would eventually use this outlet to take on the pickled onion injustice. Surely enough they did, and their enquiry is worth quoting verbatim;
“I have recently tried to purchase Walkers Picked onion flavours crips [sic], but for some reason you can’t seem to get them anywhere now?
So I e-mailed walkers cisps [sic] and asked if they still produce this flavour, the first e-mail said, try asking your local store to stock this flavour!
Not happy with this reply I e-mailed walkers again.
There second reply said “YOU CAN ONLY BUY WALKERS PICKED ONION FLAVOUR IN SCOTLAND!!!!
Are they trying to make a smoke screen to us all by actually not admitting that this flavour has been WITHDRAWN. Does withdrawing a flavour show weakness in the company?”
This post is pure poetry to me for several reasons. Firstly, despite strong opinions on the subject, the spelling of the actual word ‘crisps’ alludes this poster not once, but twice. But that can be forgiven, since he soon reveals that he is typing through a mist of sheer rage. To be fair, he was well and truly fobbed off by Walker’s with that reply – rare as they may be, the pickled onion flavour is absolutely not confined to Scotland. They just made that up.
A happier conclusion to my own pickled onion woes came at Christmas two years ago. I’d recently started dating Sidony, my girlfriend, and as is customary in early courtship, I’d regaled her with my opinions on various crisps and maize snacks, including a brief lecture on the inadequate supply of Walker’s pickled onion. As our first annual ‘fake Christmas’ rolled around (allowing us to exchange presents before returning to our respective families), she presented me with a box of 48 packs of the blighters. You know someone really ‘gets’ you when you receive a present like that.
As this is supposed to be a beer blog, I had planned some sort of analogy to a rare beer, but I can’t come up with one that works – most rare beers are released with some fanfare, and usually considerably more expensive than your average drop. Perhaps Walker’s pickled onion could be the crisp world’s answer to Westvleteren 12? A beer made in smallish quantities, not actively promoted by the brewery, not particularly expensive if you can find it. You don’t have to make a phone call and schedule an appointment to buy packets of the crisps, but if that was an option, I’d sure as hell give it a try. And there aren't legions of crisp geeks hyping Walker’s pickled onion as the best crisps in the world, but there ought to be.
How about a beer match for the crisps? Having found a semi-reliable source (Brighton folk – it’s the wonderfully named Well Done, at the bottom of North Street – leave some for me), I decided to give it a try. It’s more difficult than you might think – the vinegar tang isn't very appetising with most beers as it recalls the sour flavour of a stale pint. Pilsner Urquell’s full body and dose of buttery diacetyl seems to neutralise this somewhat, and makes a good match.
So, should a flash of lime-green catch your eye from the crisp display in your local corner shop, I urge you to act fast and embrace the oniony tang whilst you have the opportunity. And if Gary Lineker is reading this, then why not put some of that famous magnetism to good work and make pickled onion the staple flavour it deserves to be?