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Popcorn grows up with new gourmet flavours

Popcorn, cinnamon, chilli flakes, lime, paprika

Once there were only three popcorn choices - sweet, salty or plain, but the once humble food now comes in a myriad of unusual, gourmet flavours.

Wasabi and sweet ginger. Peanut satay. Crispy bacon and maple syrup. Or how about goats' cheese, or gingerbread, strawberry cheesecake, or espresso and caramel.

The US was the cradle of invention when it came to popcorn flavours, but now British producers are coming up with unique tastes all of their own, and consumers are lapping them up.

Pop to it:

Popcorn

Pop corn kernels in a little oil in minutes

Try with peanuts, chocolate and popping candy

The UK gourmet popcorn industry - now worth over £50M a year - is finally blooming, many years after America first fell in love with flavouring popping corn kernels.

It is a long way from popcorn's humble roots, as one of the earliest and simplest cooked foods known to man.

Corn or maize is native to America and its arrival in Europe is widely attributed to the explorer Columbus.

The earliest evidence for popcorn, dates from around 4,700BC in Peru, according to Washington's Natural History Museum.

But corn had been cultivated by peoples such as the Aztec and Maya since about 7,000BC.

"Corn had a mythical status in Mexico, being an ancient and nutritious crop full of vital minerals like niacin, calcium and riboflavin. Under the Mexican ruler, Moctezuma, corn became a symbol of life and fertility and was offered to the Gods as sacrifice," explains Mexican food chef Thomasina Meyers.

Portlebay Wasabi and sweet ginger popcorn Portlebay's wasabi and sweet ginger flavour proves green popcorn tastes good

Popcorn became a popular modern snack by accident after the first popcorn machine was invented, says Dan Wiggs, publisher of 30 Perfect Popcorn Recipes.

"A man called Charles Cretors made it by mistake, in 1885... he invented a peanut roaster and was trying to sell it to other shops, so he added a steam engine to improve it, and found it popped popcorn at the same time," he says.

Flavour fans:

Ras el-hanout

There are plenty of healthy alternatives to sugar, butter or oil.

Why not try:

American consumers and retailers were quick to embrace the cheap, fibre-rich food. But what was a healthy snack evolved into something mostly laden with sugar, salt and fat.

But the list of ingredients that can be added to popcorn is almost endless.

"When we first started it was all about the caramel," says London popcorn maker Adam Sopher, who together with his father Joe launched family gourmet popcorn business, Joe & Seph's in 2011, originally with six flavours.

"We sourced a goat's cheese from France, and a blue cheese from Auvergne, both of these flavours are phenomenal," says Adam Sopher.

They now offer 30 flavours including toffee apple and cinnamon, peanut satay, and a blend of cheddar cheese and smoked paprika.

But where do they get their flavour inspiration?

"We get lots of suggestions from people saying 'you should make this or that,' but I'll get a phone call in the middle of the night, or a text and it's dad saying 'I've had a great idea', and then one from mum saying 'he is downstairs in the kitchen trying things out and banging pots and pans around'," says Adam.

Joe Sopher Joe Sopher usually comes up with Joe & Seph's flavour combinations in the middle of the night

"Then the way we do it is always take three or four new ones, go to a food show, test them out, watch and see what people say, before choosing one to produce."

Crispy bacon and maple syrup is an example of the American food flavours which have inspired Portlebay Popcorn from Devon, England whose founder Jonty White sees popcorn as an appealing, alternative to crisps.

"It takes flavour better than crisps, is high in antioxidants, high in fibre, and as a snack you don't need to eat so much," he explains.

"We didn't want to stick a crisp flavour on popcorn, our product needed its own flavours. So we do applewood smoked cheddar, and a chilli and lime... a very strong flavour of lime.

"Wasabi and sweet ginger, is right at the forefront of people's minds, it's very trendy and I love it. And it is green - it has to be," he says.

Portlebay draws its inspiration from the kettle corn originally sold at country fairs in America in the 18th Century, made in front of customers in a cast iron "kettle" with a mixture of sugar, oil and salt to give it crunch.

Powder power:

Spoonful of chocolate spread

Popcorn flavourings do not need to be limited to sugar or salt.

One way to create unusual powdered flavours is by using an ingredient called tapioca maltodextrin, made from tapioca starch, which is commonly used in molecular gastronomy and modernist cooking.

High-fat liquids - think chorizo oil, chocolate spread or peanut butter - are turned into a fine powder when mixed with tapioca maltodextrin. The powder makes a fine coating for the popcorn

Easily available online, you can experiment with sweet and savoury flavours to your heart's content.

Perhaps the most striking British success is that Joe and Seph's gourmet popcorn is now an in-flight snack on US Airlines.

Why choose a UK brand over an American one?

"Ours is healthiest as it's air-popped and all about taste," says Adam Sopher. "Most US popcorn is greasy, ours is quite a different popcorn like that."

The quality of the corn is also important. There are two types of corn used to make popcorn "a mushroom and a butterfly, which has wings which can fall off," says Adam Sopher.

Whether you prefer air-popped or oil-popped, you can try out unique flavours at home too. It can be as healthy (or as unhealthy) as you want and homemade can be significantly cheaper.

"I love it, my kids love it," says food author Dan Wiggs. "It's getting very expensive but it doesn't need to be. You can make it with things in your larder and it can last two or three days if stored in an airtight box."

Dan Wiggs recommends using wasabi powder, salt and dried seaweed - shaken with popcorn in a bag, and the result is zingy green wasabi popcorn.

Wetter ingredients such as chocolate sauce or oils - foods with a fat content - can also be turned into powder by using a starch substance called tapioca maltodextrin, popular in modernist cooking.

Getting an even coating is important say the experts, so how do they achieve that?

Cinema snack

Cinema popcorn

Is cinema popcorn "nutritionally bankrupt"?

"Our caramel is made using butter and sugar and then the corn, corn syrup and all apple, cinnamon, hazelnut etc is added, " says Adam Sopher.

"We coat each piece properly and it's a very manual process to cool the popcorn, play with it by hand and sift out all the young kernels."

Jonty White says: "The popcorn enters a drum where the seasoning is added and the two are tumbled together.

"We use whey powder to carry the flavour onto the popcorn - the only way to get an even coverage.

"In simple terms the product, say bacon, is concentrated by simple reduction, and then spray dried to make a powder (the same way milk is turned into a powder)," he explains.

While popcorn has an enduring appeal to a younger generation, it seems it has finally grown up.

"My 12-year-old was a great inspiration. But we want to show it can be different, it can be fun and it can be delicious," says Jonty White.

Light as air?

(Per 100g) Air-popped Oil-popped

Protein

12.94

9

Carbohydrate

77.9

58.1

Calories

387

500

Water

3.32

2.8

Fat

4.54

28.1

Fibre

14.5

10

Source: USDA Nutrient database

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