Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Potato Pickings - How special is the Jersey Royal?

"Pink Fir Apple" Potato
By now you will probably have noticed the tiny Jersey Royal potatoes arriving in the shops, and you may wonder why I haven't sent out a Food Find alert.  Well, the reason is that I blog about what I consider to be good and for the last few years, sadly, I don't think Jersey Royals meet my criteria.  The Jersey Royal is grown in the British Channel Island of Jersey.  Having an EU "Designation of Origin", Jersey Royals cannot be sold as such from anywhere else.  The variety of potato is in fact "International Kidney", alluding to their distinctive kidney-shape, and they are grown under this name elsewhere in the UK, though not widely as they are susceptible to blight.

The things that made Jerseys special were the early crop and the effect of the local vraic seaweed which was spread over the potato beds.  The Channel Islands are milder than most other areas of the UK (with the possible exception of the Scilly Isles), and the potatoes are grown on the steeply sloping south-facing hillsides of the island.  These days the beds are more likely to be swathed in black polythene to speed up growing for an even earlier crop.  It's also not considered cost-effective to haul the seaweed up from the beach.  The first Jerseys to go on sale are little bigger than marbles and are known as "mids".  To my mind, they taste OK but not special.  By the time outdoor-grown English asparagus (May to mid-June) is available the potatoes will be larger (this size is referred to as "small ware") and I think they taste better for it.  I'm sure there must still be some farmers who grow Jerseys in the traditional way but their potatoes are certainly not getting to me.  If you find a source in London, snap them up - and please let me know.

So, following the principle of "good things come to he who waits", this year I'll be biding my time and waiting for my own crop of salad potatoes.  A nice waxy-fleshed Charlotte is my 2011 choice planted a couple of weeks ago, on a bio-dynamic 'root' day.  I'll have to wait until July to enjoy them, but enjoy them I will.  In a week or so I'll also plant some Pink Fir Apple potatoes for harvesting in August/September (see above for a picture of last year's).  Maybe next year I'll even plant International Kidney, feed them with seaweed fertiliser, and have a taste-off with Jersey Royals.  I'll probably fall flat on my face, especially if they get blighted, and maybe it'll make me appreciate Jersey Royals more.

In anticipation of you finding some good salad potatoes, here's a simple, classic potato salad recipe from Simon Hopkinson. The peeling of salad potatoes is one of the few subjects I am in disagreement with him about.  He is somewhat messianic on this point.  At least he does concede that Jersey Royals don't need peeling - being papery, the skins simply rub or scrub off - but he is adamant that all others should be boiled then peeled.  For me it depends on the variety and I certainly don't peel young Charlottes or Pink Fir Apple.

Potato Salad (Source: Simon Hopkinson - Roast Chicken and Other Stories)
(Serves 4)

700g/1½lbs waxy salad potatoes
salt and pepper
3-4 sprigs of mint
1 tbsp Dijon mustard (smooth)
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
5 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A few spring onions or chives

Scrub the potatoes and boil in salted water with the mint until just cooked.  Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper, then whisk in the oils.  Drain the potatoes and discard the mint.  If the potatoes are bigger than marble size, cut in half longways (it looks prettier and exposes a larger area of flesh to the dressing).  Whilst still hot, add them to the dressing.  Snip the spring onion or chives into the bowl and gently mix to coat the potatoes.  Lukewarm is the perfect eating temperature for this delicious potato salad.