Joanna Blythman: The humble potato deserves more respect
Too many spuds are duds, says our columnist. It’s time for a Great British Potato Challenge.
Put it down to my nationality if you like: we Scots, like the Irish and French, take potatoes very seriously. That’s why it pains me so much to see this splendidly versatile vegetable being treated as an anonymous bolt-on to a dish, an anodyne starch of irrelevant pedigree.
From triple-cooked chips and roasties through to gratin dauphinoise, it’s not the recipe itself that bugs me, it’s the fact that the type of potato used is utterly nondescript. Too many spuds are duds.
In my evening job reviewing restaurants, I’m regularly served ambitiously priced, competently cooked main courses in the £16-25 bracket, but so often the potato element lets them down. Typically, you’re given specimens of similar sizes, with a humid consistency, and a yawning vacuum where flavour should be. Those sold as ‘baby potatoes’, as if that were a selling point, are usually the worst.
Maybe chefs economise on the potatoes they buy, either because they’re under pressure to keep ingredient costs down, or because they don’t believe their customers know any better. Yet, if you are someone who does indeed appreciate a proper spud, then no amount of butter, cream, or chives disguises the deficit.
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Gastronomically speaking, the potato family is large and colourful. Depending on the variety grown, potatoes can be purple, blue, black, white, yellow – and that applies to the flesh as well as the skins. Texturally, too, the potato is a broad church. It is traditionally divided, a bit like a family tree, between two principal lines: waxy and floury.
Pink Fir Apple, for example, is waxy, which means it’s firm enough to adhere slightly to your knife, a quality that suits it to steaming, or a potato salad. King Edwards, on the other hand, belong in the floury camp, just the job for roasting or baking.
Back in the 1960s, plant breeders came up with the concept of ‘multi-purpose potatoes’, and that’s when, to my mind, the potato went pear-shaped. Modern potato clans, such as all the varieties in the Maris stable, were developed to fit this dubious concept, varieties that produced bigger yields when grown with heaps of water, fertilisers and pesticides.
Then the supermarkets chipped in – excuse the pun – ordaining that customers could no longer be troubled with potatoes that had deep eyes, lumpy contours, uneven size or appearance. These pernickety specifications meant that many intrinsically characterful heritage varieties we once revered became seen as not commercial, a hobby option for earnest allotment holders, potato buffs, and hard-toplease French chefs.
The concept of ‘new’ potatoes got mashed, too. This tag used to be reserved in the UK for highly-prized early summer varieties, such as Jersey Royals and Epicure. Fleeting delights, unsuited to storage, we savoured them fresh. Now in common parlance, it seems to mean any thin-skinned, small potato imported from anywhere in the world, at any time.
What would it take to restore understanding and appreciation of the potato in all its rich diversity? A Great British Spud Challenge perhaps, along Bake Off lines? We’d never run out of recipes. Latent spud love runs deep so it’s there for the tapping. Viewing figures wouldn’t disappoint.
In the meantime, the maincrop potato season, which runs from August to October, is upon us. This is when the thicker-skinned varieties that see us through winter come on stream. I’m on the lookout for any chef, farm shop or greengrocer that does potatoes justice, and will reward them with my business.
Without their interest, the omnipresent potato is like a crashing bore at a party, hard to avoid and mind-numbingly dull, when it should be a fascinating old friend.
Read more articles by Joanna Blythman
Why ‘grass-fed’ isn’t as virtuous as it seems
Why I won't use vegetable oil
Stop the vegan fake ‘meat’ copycats
There's a lot of artisan fakery about
Are we now too busy to chew?
Go small for a better shopping experience
Pleasure doesn't come in a packet
Which potato variety is your favourite? Leave a comment below...
Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.