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Chip, chip hooray!

Chip, chip hooray!

CHIPS ARE a national obsession but we cannot take credit for their invention. It was a Belgian who brought them to Scotland and it was Dundee where they were first eagerly devoured.

Edward de Gernier was the enterprising individual who gave Scots their first taste of fries 140 years ago. Born in Brussels in May 1847, he arrived in Dundee in the early 1870s with his French wife Julia.

After a brief stint working in the mills of Blairgowrie, the couple moved into a house in the city’s bustling Greenmarket hoping to find work. However, speaking little English, jobs proved hard to come by. Undeterred, Edward resurrected his trade as a shoemaker but, aware of the popularity of chips in his homeland, he quickly spotted a lucrative gap in the fast food market.

He was convinced that he could replicate the success of the Belgian chip stalls that flourished on street corners and at fairs back home. He gathered up what cash he could a meagre three pennies and leased a stand in the bustling arcade, described in reports of the time as a twice-weekly gathering of “fiddlers, pickpockets, whores, auctioneers and preachers”.

Amid this colourful and chaotic backdrop, he set up a brazier and a cooking pot within a makeshift tent, constructed crude seating from discarded fruit and vegetable crates and sat down to wash, peel and slice by hand a sack of spuds.

With a pan of mutton fat bubbling away over a roaring fire, the stall opened for business on a busy Friday evening in 1874. It was an instant hit. Over 450 portions of chips at a half penny a time were snapped up by hungry Dundonians on that first night.

Encouraged by this hearty response, and after recouping his seed capital so swiftly, the canvas tent was replaced with a more substantial wooden-framed structure clad in jute cloth and proper wooden benches were installed. Edward developed his menu too, adding mushy peas to the flabby white potato chips. Soaked in vinegar, the dish was christened the pea-buster.

Advertised as the “first chip potatoes, peas and vinegar stall in Great Britain”, the unique pea-buster, or Dundee Buster as it was nicknamed, drew customers from far and wide.

It is said that, on one occasion, two young men walked all the way from Perth just to sample the delicacy.

A visit to the de Gernier’s tent fast became the highlight of any trip to the Greenmarket. Few could resist the heady aroma of frying chips wafting from the open door of the tent or the sharp tang of malt vinegar that permeated the air.

Customers happily sat relishing the warmth of the fire, chatting away to friends and strangers alike, as they waited to be fed. The stall was more than just a convenient takeaway it was the beating social heart of the market.

The de Gerniers were encouraged to establish buster stalls in other towns and cities but were content to confine their activities to Dundee, leaving the way clear for an influx of largely Italian immigrants to open fish and chip shops across Scotland. They did, however, corner the city’s chip market, running six stalls at the height of their success, employing their children and then their grandchildren in the family business.

When Julia died in 1902, Edward hung up his potato peeler and opened a shoe repair shop in Lochee, a job he continued to do right up until his death in 1926. He was 79.

Serving up inexpensive yet nourishing fare, the family’s buster stalls continued to feed city folk until the 1960s when the last one, run by granddaughter Christine McGregor in Long Wynd, closed, the site cleared to make way for the Overgate Shopping Centre.

Today, thanks to urban redevelopment, the old Greenmarket is no more and there is nothing in the city to mark the de Gernier’s place in the culinary history of Scotland.

Buster stalls are gone and all but forgotten, but the pea-buster lives on, sold in many of the city’s fish and chip shops, and chips, despite the growing trend towards healthier eating, remain as popular today as they were when Edward served up his first poke all those years ago.