PRIEGO DE CORDOBA, Spain — If you’re under the impression that a potato chip is a common snack that is crisp and delicious, no matter what brand you buy, then you haven’t tasted chips from San Nicasio, a tiny factory in this Andalucian mountain town in the south of Spain.
These are hand-crafted chips, fried in the extra-virgin olive oil of the region. They are extraordinarily crunchy and not too salty; every chip is perfect and you can actually taste the aromatic oil in which they’re fried. San Nicasio are the chips offered at more than 25 restaurants operated by Spanish-born Michelin-starred chef Jose Andres, who co-brands with the company. It has won the Brussels-based Monde Selection Gold Award 12 times since 2008, and the chips are in such demand that they’re also shipped to Japan, China, Russia, Australia, Dubai, Kuwait, and Western Europe. The Telegraph newspaper in Great Britain listed the chips as one of the 50 foods to try before you die. Brits have dubbed artisan chips like these “posh crisps.”
Priego de Cordoba is halfway between Cordoba and Granada. San Nicasio founder Rafael del Rosal Lopez explains through translator Tim Murray-Walker, who owns the neighboring Casa Olea inn, that Andres discovered the chip company partly because Rosal Lopez’s product is Spanish and partly because the recipe is so simple. The process, except for the packaging, is fundamentally low-tech. “In the end it was quite easy,” says Rosal Lopez. “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but you get found.”
The original little crisps have the same ingredients other chips do — potatoes, oil, and salt — and nothing else. But those three things are the best money can buy and the method is thoroughly thought out to turn them into incredibly appealing chips.
They are made with local, floury Agria potatoes that are not genetically modified and come into the factory still covered with dirt. Extra-virgin olive oil is sourced from an award-winning cooperative mill, Almazaras de la Subbetica, which is stamped with the Priego de Cordoba Protected Designation of Origin. Olives for the oil are pressed just down the road, so there’s no transportation or unnecessary long storage. The pink salt sprinkled sparingly on the hot chips as they emerge from the fryer comes from the Himalayas. Rosal Lopez thinks that a little goes a long way; he doesn’t want his chips to be too salty.
Rosal Lopez, 47, and his wife, Mari Carmen Osuna Granados, 44, began here in 1998 with a churros stand. They sold the doughnut-like fried loops for a year until Rosal Lopez got the idea to add potato chips to the kiosk in the afternoons. Two years later, there was enough demand to build a little factory, then the couple moved a decade later to another facility. When that became too small after a few years, they started building a third one in 2013.
The financial crisis hit in the middle of construction; the couple owed the builders money and their bank wasn’t giving any out. The couple was sinking financially. Finally, the bank said that if they could come up with some of the money, the bank would kick in the rest. A client abroad bailed out the little company, but the plan backfired. “The bank went back on their word,” says Rosal Lopez. After much hand-wringing, the situation was resolved when two friends and the local olive oil cooperative loaned him the funds to continue building.
At the time, the couple had three young children and a 98-year-old grandmother and sick mother, who were both living with them. “It was a financial nightmare,” says Rosal Lopez. He found himself up at 3 a.m. every night worrying about the outcome.
He still keeps those hours, except there’s a factory here and he goes in before dawn to sort potatoes, removing any green spots by hand, so the crew that arrives early — his wife and two others — can begin work. “I’ve done 2,000 kilos by the time everyone comes in,” he says.
In the one-story factory, where there is plenty of space to expand, there is no smell of frying oil as you approach the building, nor any odor at all on the factory floor. That’s due to the low temperature Rosal Lopez is heating the oil (about 269 degrees Fahrenheit, which is far lower than other commercial chip factories). The entrepreneur explains that he doesn’t want his chips to have acrylamide — a chemical found in potatoes fried at high temperatures — and he does what he can to decrease that, like lowering the frying temperature and never refrigerating potatoes.
A water machine scrubs the potatoes using centrifugal force, another peels them, and Rosal Lopez goes through them by hand to remove any eyes on the spuds. Then they’re put into a slicing machine and tipped into the oil.
The frying temperature is so low that Rosal Lopez dips his finger into the vat to show that it’s not hot enough to burn him. He stirs the chips with the paddle end of something that looks like an oar. They’re floating in a giant mesh strainer inside the vat. “Low temperature makes it more labor intensive,” he says. The potatoes can stick together and have to be moved constantly. They’re in the oil for two minutes.
The strainer lifts automatically, drains excess oil back into the pot for a few seconds, then tips the chips onto a short conveyor belt, where they chug along while someone removes any that are too brown or not good-looking. They’re salted and packaged in triple-layer bags; all the oxygen in the packages is removed and food nitrogen is injected into them to keep the chips fresh. Chips are weighed before and after they go into the bags. Any whose weight is light are removed.
Rosal Lopez takes a bag off the conveyor belt and asks me to stand on it. The puffy little bag doesn’t budge. You can practically stomp on these chips and the bags won’t pop open. “I have put them under water and no water can get through,” he says. That kind of packaging costs more money, which is why the chips are priced higher (San Nicasio Jose Andres chips in a 6.7-ounce bag are $7.95; six 1.4 ounce bags are $14.95 on www.tienda.com.)
San Nicasio recycles everything. Dirt shaken off the potatoes and their peels go into local fertilizer; rejected potatoes are sent to local animals; used olive oil is shipped out to be repurposed; water from the machines is captured for another use. All rainwater from the drain pipes is used to irrigate the factory’s gardens. “This commitment to extensive recycling is expensive,” says Rosal Lopez.
In addition to the original flavor with Himalayan pink salt, which comes in pink bags, Rosal Lopez has introduced black pepper, which fills the mouth with a little heat; Pimenton de la Vera, the traditional Spanish smoked paprika, which is so appealing on the crisp bites; and truffle flower, made with dehydrated Italian fungi, which lends a very subtle, earthy taste to the chips.
Rosal Lopez hasn’t had a vacation in 20 years, so his oldest child, who is 16 now, has never been on holiday. All of his income goes back into the business.
“I like a challenge,” he says. “Like a lot of people, I’m always going to the next step. In the back of my mind the whole American dream thing is in there. Could I do this with other products? In the States, take oil from here, potatoes from the States, same salt. We could create the same quality of product. We could do it anywhere. China — you name it.”
The entrepreneur who began with a little kiosk knows the allure of a perfect snack. San Nicasio potato chips, www.sannicasio.es