It's a quarter of a century since Scotland's Deep Fried Mars Bar was discovered.
It is the curiosity of the world over – a Scottish delicacy every tourist seems desperate to try.
From the four corners of the world they flock, eager to get their mouths around the calorific oddity they’ve heard so much about.
At home, well let’s face it, it’s a very different story with most of us happy to leave them to it, having never felt the yearning desire to even nibble one.
The Deep Fried Mars Bar: it’s up there with haggis, see-you-Jimmy hats and naff Nessie souvenirs so many visitors to our great nation have on their to-do lists as they head for our historic cities and mountainous landscapes.
And they have been doing this for 25 years. Yes, this month marks a quarter of a century since Scotland’s Deep Fried Mars Bar was
“We’ve had people come from all over the world – India, Australia, Bangladesh – and they want to try them,” says Lorenzo Pia, owner of Bene’s, in the Canongate, “They think it is a normal thing to do in Edinburgh.”
Bene’s claims to be one of the first chip shops in the Capital to have served up a deep fried Mars Bar, introducing it to its menu some 20 years
It’s a must-visit destination for tourists keen to try one out, coming up top on a Google search with the likes of the Clamshell, further up the road on the High Street, and Cafe Piccante, on Broughton Street.
But the origins of the greasy treat can be traced much further north to Stonehaven where the Carron Fish Bar (known back in 1995 as The Haven) is understood to have invented the now famous dish.
Alastair Dalton, a journalist with The Scotsman, was working in the area at the time on the Evening Express in Aberdeen when a friend of his phoned with a cracker of a story, telling him he had learned of a local chip shop serving up Mars Bars fried in batter. Who could even imagine such a thing?
Alastair has regretted not jumping on the story ever since – and explains more (below) – as he handed the tip-off over to a colleague who was in charge of the Stonehaven patch.
The paper then ran a short-ish picture story on the new trend which was gripping Stonehaven’s schoolkids (as it all apparently began when one of them asked if they could have their Mars Bar deep fried, starting off a trend on their lunch breaks).
Just days later, the Daily Record picked the story up and went to town on it giving it the full tabloid treatment, and the world learned of The Deep Fried Mars Bar: this unlikely sweet, oily, oddity that then began springing up in chip shops across the country. Years later, it would even get a mention on the Jay Leno Show in the US.
Of course, we now know that (with a heavy, heavy heart thinking about the missed opportunity every time he hears of a Mars bar) that Alastair Dalton knew about it first.
Unlike poor Alastair, that Stonehaven chip shop has dined out on its discovery of the Deep Fried Mars Bar ever since, with a whopping “Birthplace of the World Famous Deep Fried Mars Bar” adorning its frontage.
Back in July 2015, this caused a bit of a stir however with Aberdeenshire Council telling the owner it should come down “for the good of the wider community” as part of plans to smarten up the town.
'We can sell more than 200 a day' in summer
Needless to say, owner Lorraine Watson ignored the requests, telling the BBC the proposed ban was “ridiculous”.
“Thousands and thousands of tourists come from all over the world to purchase the deep fried Mars Bar from the birthplace,” she said. “They stand outside under the banner with their Mars Bar, smiling from ear to ear, then go home and let all their friends and family see it.
“We have no idea why the council would want this banner taken down, bearing in mind it takes thousands of visitors to the town.”
The council eventually gave in and all these years later nobody could dispute the financial benefits of The Carron Fish Bar (and its sign) to Stonehaven and wider Aberdeenshire.
“It’s a bucket-list item that people feel they need to tick off and we love helping them do that,” Lorraine Watson recently told The Scottish Sun, explaining she had come across an Italian-to-English phrase book advising visitors on how to order a battered Mars Bar in Scotland.
“We can sell more than 200 a day during the summer and most of them are to tourists.
“You might get the odd local who buys it because they genuinely like them but for the most part people come from far and wide so they can say they tried it.”
So what is the appeal?
“Curiosity,” says Selim Sener, manager at Cafe Piccante. “It brings tourists to the country.
“We mostly sell them to tourists, often people coming up from England for a weekend. I would say that nine out of ten people who try them like them.”
But there will always be the odd person who cannot even bear the idea, never mind the taste. And they would likely be horrified too at the many other dessert-type items that have reached Scotland’s chip shop fryers since the battered Mars Bar was born: Cream Eggs at Easter? A deep fried Christmas pudding? Cafe Piccante is home to both.
For some it may simply come down to the health though, with the deep fried Mars Bar now a symbol for Scotland’s stereotypical poor diet.
Even Mars tried to distance itself from the product back in 2012, writing to the owners of The Carron Fish Bar to spell out that the product was not authorised or endorsed by the company as it did not fit its promotion of healthy living.
But hey, life is for living is it not and you only get one shot?
“The trick is to cook it straight away – don’t freeze it first – and just pop it in hot oil for a few seconds. That is it,” says Lorenzo Pia at Bene’s.
“Every so often I have one too – it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure.”
Alastair recalls his Deep Fried Mars Bar pain
Most journalists have a story they wish they had written, and this is mine, made all the more infuriating by its regular reappearance in the media, even a quarter of a century after I passed on the tip-off for a colleague to cover.
More fool me to have not realised this culinary innovation would become totemic of the notorious side of Scottish cuisine rather than being a soon-forgotten chip shop quirk.
I recall my friend John Lindsay, a University of Edinburgh press officer with an eye for a good story, excitedly phoning me about his colleague Ann Smith returning from a weekend in her home town of Stonehaven where she had encountered the said battered Mars Bar.
I must have been blinded by office protocol at the Evening Express in Aberdeen – or more likely blind to a stonker of a story – in deciding to give it to the newsdesk to be covered by a reporter in the paper’s Stonehaven office, since it was on their part of our patch.
Perhaps my editors felt the same, in not even affording the tale a “page lead” (main story on a page), but running it as a shortish side panel, albeit with a photo.
I thought nothing more of it at the time and was oblivious to the Daily Record giving the story far greater prominence the next day – so much so that it is often claimed they broke the story. Even The Lancet medical journal pictured the Record’s coverage in its story nine years later about the Deep Fried Mars Bar taking on legendary status.
However, John Lindsay was clearly more bothered than me, prompting him to update a Wikipedia page on the Deep Fried Mars Bar phenomenon to set the record straight, as it were, while also saving my blushes in failing to break the story.
The entry stated: “The first recorded mention of the food was in the Aberdeen Evening Express, following a tip-off phone call to their journalist Alastair Dalton that a chip shop in Stonehaven had been deep frying Mars Bars for local children.”
It pains me to read the rest of the entry about its subsequent fame – on the Big Breakfast, BBC World Service, Jay Leno on The Tonight Show in the US, and so on.
I was also constantly reminded of my misjudgment by a notice in a chip shop window in the Royal Mile every time I passed en route between The Scotsman’s then Edinburgh head office and Waverley Station.
And just to rub it in, my wife – who I met two years after the story broke – told me she too had been affected by the story. Her boss in London, having heard about the fried Mars Bar, marched her into his office (I guess as the token Scot in the organisation) to demand to know what it was all about.
But, no, I’ve never tried one.