Potatoes have a unique place in the British diet. We each eat around 130kg every year; boiled, baked, roasted, mashed and chipped, the humble spud is a familiar, much loved part of mealtimes. What is surprising, though, is that although there are around 500 varieties of potato, only about 80 varieties are grown commercially, so only a few are well known and available in Britain’s supermarkets.
We’re all familiar with delectable Jersey Royals, with their wonderfully distinctive flavour; Cara are excellent for baking; King Edwards are superb roasted, mashed or chipped; Maris Piper are dry and floury and good for all methods of cooking, while the dense, moist flesh of Charlottes makes wonderful potato salad.
But how many of us have come across Lady Christl, Dunbar Rover or Mr Little’s Yetholm Gypsy? These old-fashioned potato types are now deemed ‘heritage’ or ‘gourmet’ varieties and are hard to find, although you may be lucky and come across them at farmers’ markets or from a specialist grower.
The trouble is that these heirloom potatoes are not cosmetically perfect. Even the Prince of Wales had his organic potatoes rejected by the supermarkets because they weren’t shiny enough! He sold them to South Gloucestershire County Council instead, who supply them to local schools. It’s not surprising that many people think of potatoes as bland and insipid if they can only buy flawless, perfectly shaped specimens with little flavour.
The supermarkets may offer us a choice beyond just ‘White’ or ‘Red’ nowadays, but there’s still a terrific range of potatoes with unique flavours and textures far beyond those currently available. Fortunately, some supermarkets are dipping a cautious toe in the water and are offering a few ‘heirloom’ varieties. I discovered some Shetland Blacks in the supermarket recently. These small, purplish/black-skinned potatoes have yellow flesh and a floury texture and are very tasty baked or sautéed.
Different potatoes have their own distinctive taste and their texture varies considerably too, so it’s important to cook them correctly. A potato may be described as having a waxy or floury texture. Floury potatoes tend to break up when boiled, so are best baked, roasted or chipped, while waxy potatoes are moister and have less starch, so are good for boiling and in potato salad and layered potato dishes.
Some old-fashioned varieties date back a century or more and come in an amazing range of shapes, colours and interesting flavours. I’m going to try and track down as many unusual varieties as possible, not only for their unique flavours, but also to experience a true taste of our culinary history.
Once you’ve picked your potatoes, try them in one of our many potato recipes.