13 Feb 2017

In Praise of Potatoes

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, our shop full of heart shaped consumables, and spring a whisker away. My excitement is evident to all around me as a call comes over the radio, “Blue. There’s a large paper sack in reception with your name on it.” No. Not a romantic gift from one of my admirers or, for that matter, from my dear spouse. It is the highlight of my year: the arrival of my potato seed order. I rip open the 3 ply paper sack with the joy of a child on Christmas morning, partly because of the anticipation of reading the delivery note and rediscovering exactly what I ordered on that miserable day in early December when all hope seemed lost, but mainly because I just LOVE the “humble” potato. Forget the Ocha, the Dahlia tubers and all the other exotic ephemera that grips the gardener/cooks of our time: for me the spud rules!

I hope this year’s selection will show the variety of shape and colour and ultimately of flavour and texture that is displayed by this stalwart of the Solanaceae. First earlies are Solanum ‘Casablanca’ which produces delicious new potatoes and possesses the coveted AGM and the pink-skinned S.’Rosabelle’, another attractive salad potato that I am trialling. The second earlies S.‘Innovator’ and S.‘Maris Peer’: the former being a new improved Russet type producing excellent jacket potatoes while the latter, bred in the 1960s, is long renowned for its waxiness and flavour.

My main crops this year are a real mixture and a deliberate move away from the French salad potatoes that were last year’s choice but sadly also feature highly in the Slug’s Gourmet Garden Guide.

S.‘Mayan Gold’ actually belongs to the Phureja sub group of our beloved Solanum tuberosum and comes from the foothills of the Peruvian Andes. It is celebrated among chefs as a top roaster. My next is S.‘Salad Blue’ which is actually a misnomer. Although the potato is a deep purplish blue that is retained in the cooking process it is better suited for chipping and mashing; it makes an interesting shepherd’s pie.

Of course, if you love something your biggest fear is losing it and when anyone mentions the B word I feel myself internally flinching. I distinctly remember a visitor admiring my stand of lush, in fact, exuberant S.‘Picasso’ “No sign of blight, then?” quoth he and I concurred with him with a dreadful sense of fate sorely tempted. Two days later the first papery mildewed patches appeared to punish my hubris.

This leads me to my final choice of main crop S.‘Carolus’ which stood proudly while others wilted dismally under last year’s fungal onslaught. This year I am taking a leaf from an Australian organic farmer I conversed with who recommended sulphur applied regularly over the dangerous summer period: it can be sprayed on in its wettable form and if you are, like me, unwilling to use the more toxic copper fungicides it provides a good alternative.

And so I await favourable planting conditions and a delivery of well-rotted manure and in the meantime my precious charges sit upright in their egg boxes in the potting shed. Before I leave work tonight I shall talk to them and tuck them under their hessian duvet and think of waxy summer salads, buttery mash, delicious roasties and maybe a long overdue dauphinoise.