By Alice Whitehead
When Alan Romans’ father banned him from growing potatoes in the family’s Aberdeenshire garden in the 1950s it might have stifled his passion for the humble spud. But despite his father’s best efforts, the seed of Romans’ potato obsession was planted.
Behind gooseberry bushes at the bottom of the vegetable plot, Romans junior began growing potatoes in secret; a handful at first, and then a couple of rows – developing skills that would lead him to become one of the foremost potato experts in the country.
Romans senior wasn’t a cruel father. As an experienced Government soil surveyor, he was well aware of the toll that mass-scale potato production – which had fed the country through two World Wars – had taken on potatoes and the soil, and he wanted minimise the risk of spreading potato eelworm to the farms he worked on.
“Being told not to grow potatoes was a strange thing for a Scottish lad, especially in a prime potato growing region where spuds were the focus of every conversation,” says Romans. “But I couldn’t stop myself, and the more I grew, the more I learnt, and the more fascinated I became. Potatoes were a revelation.”
From this early fascination, Romans went on to ‘pick tatties’ in the school holidays; earn extra cash during his student days by ‘potato roguing’ (inspecting crops for disease) and, although qualifying as a biology teacher, continued to “subversively plan his impact on the potato world”. Eventually he became a commercial grower, working with leading seed manufacturers and helping to create one of the first dedicated potato catalogues for Thomson and Morgan.
“I’ve always had three feet in the potato world and part of my overwhelming enthusiasm is concerned with the insight I feel they give me into the past,” says Romans, who’s also responsible for The Potato Book, an exhaustive tome on potato history and growing techniques. “I can’t help feeling that the history of the potato is often that of the survival of the ordinary human being.”
Pomme de terre passion
Romans doesn’t overstate the importance of the potato. First cultivated by Inca Indians in Peru some 8,000 years ago, centuries later the invading Spanish conquistadors – on the look out for gold and jewels – found potatoes instead and took their precious cargo back to Europe to impress royalty. By the 18th century, potatoes had gained popularity in Britain, China and America (Thomas Jefferson debuted French fries at the White House) and, today, as the third most important food crop in the world, potatoes have a global following.
“Who doesn’t embrace a good mash or some crispy roast potatoes?” says Paul Gayler, executive chef at London's Lanesborough Hotel and author of A Passion for Potatoes. “Food trends may come and go but I suspect potatoes will never go out of fashion.”
Potatoes are rarely off the menu in the kitchen of Michelin-starred chef Galton Blackiston either. “They’re number one in the vegetable charts for me,” says Blackiston, head chef and patron at Morston Hall, in Norfolk. “There’s really nothing like a new potato, dug from the garden, lightly scraped and boiled and served with plenty of mint and butter. I get the same thrill from this as the first asparagus.”
Keen cooks agree that choosing the correct type of potato for the job can make all the difference between a good meal and a great meal. But with varieties that include a roll call of royalty: Duke of York, King Edward, British Queen; exotic beauties: Cara, Desiree, Nadine; or superheroes: Golden Wonder, Rocket, Premiere – it can be hard to know which to choose.
Helpfully, potatoes generally fall into two distinct types. ‘Waxy’ ones such as Charlotte or Maris Peer – with their moist and translucent flesh – stay firm in salads but make inferior mash, while ‘floury’ types such as Estima or Nadine – with their brighter, drier and more granular feel – put the right amount of fluff into mash, but aren’t rated as highly by chip shop owners.
“I love creating salads with potatoes – Ratte and Pink Fir Apple are great – and endless variations on good mash with Maris Piper,” says Gayler. “If I’m frying then it’s Yukon Gold, and for baking: Marfona or Romano.”
King Edward, Maris Piper and Desiree all have “starring roles” on the menu for Blackiston. “King Edwards cooked in goose fat or dripping are great in winter, as are Maris Pipers sliced with cheese, cream and garlic,” he says. “And then there’s Desiree, sautéed with lots of fried onions and parsley.”
Best of British
But while thousands of varieties are grown globally, and some 450 in Britain, only 80 of these are grown commercially in the UK – and the choice in supermarkets can be even smaller.
“Modern controlled varieties come and go with depressing regularity,” says Romans. “Cautious supermarket buyers are comfortable with the long-established, ‘approved’ varieties because they are cheaper and easier to grow. But I’m in favour of more choice.”
Commercial potato farmer Matt Spanton, who supplies large chains from his South East farm, says the demand for “picture-perfect” potatoes means less choice. “Shoppers expect potatoes to look a certain way, which means we’re grading out perfectly good ones because they’ve got the odd skin blemish. This is sad because it’s the growers that pay the price.”
Spanton says the market for fresh potatoes in the UK has declined year-on-year as consumers turn to frozen chips or ready-made potato products. “It’s not hard to peel a potato, but so few people actually cook anymore,” he says. “If this trend continues, we’re at risk of losing some of Britain’s great farming heritage.”
Blackiston says supermarkets have responded by stocking more foreign potatoes. “It’s shocking to see so many different varieties of potatoes from every corner of the earth – except Britain. I’m all for shoppers having variety but do we really need to be buying in potatoes from Peru and Cyprus, or offering foreign new potatoes in January?” he says.
While Spanton has joined forces with The British Potato Council to promote British spuds by inviting families to his farm, TV chef Alan Coxon (who can claim to be the man behind ‘The Best Potato Recipe In The World’, for his winning entry in the 2008 International Recipe Awards) has raised awareness by taking a potato pilgrimage around the UK.
“People stick to what they know and it’s extremely easy to fall into a particular eating habit,” says Coxon. “I wanted to highlight the versatility of potatoes and help people look at them in a different way. The potato has been neglected and needs more respect.”
On the heritage trail
A decade ago, Northumberland farmer Anthony Carroll had an ‘epiphany’ when he decided to stop growing uniform potatoes for supermarkets in favour of heritage varieties.
“I remember the day I went to a potato event and tucked away in the corner was this table of knobbly, oddly shaped potatoes with deep-set eyes and colourful flesh, which tasted fantastic,” says Carroll. “I simply couldn’t get them out of my head. Later, when I was asked to grow another standard variety for a supermarket and I asked them why. ‘They’re high-yield, easy to harvest, disease resistant and look great in a plastic bag,’ they said. ‘But they taste filthy’. It was at this point I said ‘no more’.”
Today, at Carroll’s Heritage Potatoes in the River Till Valley, in Tiptoe, Anthony and wife Lucy grow small parcels of pre-1950 varieties (with some dating back to the 1800s), which chefs – eager for a 1.5kg bag of snowy white Dunbar Rover or a 12.5kg box of waxy La Ratte, or blue-skinned Arran Victory – can get delivered to their doorstep.
“I have a soft spot for Dunbar Rover as this was the first one we grew,” says Carroll. “I think this variety sums up what we’re all about: it may not look pretty and the yields are terrible – but it tastes divine!”
Although, as an Irish saying proclaims, “beef is the king of meat and the potato is the queen of the garden”, Romans remains resolute that potatoes have not been honoured properly.
“It has always struck me as odd that a food that took Europe from one of the poorest continents to one of the most thriving is regarded as something of a joke. Just think of sayings like ‘couch potato’ or ‘potato head’,” he says.
But thanks to Romans’ commitment; the continued passion of Britain’s growers; a growing band of potato-loving chefs – and in the face of worldwide food shortages – more people are beginning to regard the humble spud as extraordinary, rather than ordinary.
“We’re growing Rolls-Royces, Lamborghinis and Ferraris here, not something off the conveyer-belt,” says Carroll. “A lot more love, care and attention go into our varieties. Delicious potatoes simply cannot be mass produced.”
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