Fall back in love with the humble potato

Lest We Forget

Because we can have them any time we want, the emergence of the year’s first potatoes isn’t celebrated in the same way as, say, the year’s first asparagus.

Indeed, when it comes to our perception of these two vegetables, they dwell at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The humble, mud-covered spud is the most common of vegetables, a dull but vital staple in millions of diets.

Proud asparagus, low-carb, low-calorie luxury, is a fine addition to a meal, not a meal in itself, for the few weeks it’s with us every year.

But although it may not get us excited, the lowly potato is the king of the vegetables. Over the last five centuries, no vegetable has had a greater or longer-lasting impact.

Many historians believe it saved northern Europe from famine, fuelled the growth of western empires, and gave rise to modern, industrialised agriculture.

Today it is one of the five most important crops worldwide, alongside rice, wheat, sugar cane and corn. But its fortunes in recent times have taken a turn for the worse.

This time last year, the Potato Council, an organisation that aims to develop and promote the UK’s potato industry, was warning the spud had a ‘fight for relevance’ on its hands in the face of an eight per cent drop in sales over the previous 12 months.

With a growing taste for pasta, rice and other more convenient alternatives, and many people now avoiding carbohydrates altogether, we’ve been turning our backs on the faithful potato.

The prospects of potato farmers were further hurt by a bumper crop last year, with the resulting surplus driving a painful fall in prices.

Nicki Crawley, who runs The Potato Shop, at the 1,900-acre Morghew Park Estate in Tenterden with estate owner Tom Lewis, is working hard to dig the potato out of this hole.

She said: “It’s a rocky road right now.

“There was a bumper crop last year and there’s too many of them now. The price has dropped because of it.

“Potatoes are really healthy, but they’re unfashionable at the moment.

“We grew on 40 acres last year, but this year we’ve cut it down to 35.”

Athough they’ve downsized, they’re now growing more varieties of potato than ever.

And that’s where they have an edge on their competitors.

“Because we grow all these varieties, we’re a bit different. A lot of producers only grow two or three which go on contract to supermarkets. We grow 20. No-one else does it this way. It’s hard work, I think that’s why!”

The 46-year-old mother of two, who grew up on the edge of Tunbridge Wells, has been at Morghew Estate for ten years. She’s doing things a little differently this time round, pulling the first potatoes of the year from the ground last week.

“We planted early this year. In March rather than April. We’re experimenting to see if they’ll be ready earlier,” she explained.

Nicki has also added three new varieties, Robinta, pink gypsy and international kidney, and moved the pink fir apple to centre stage, with it now occupying more acreage than any other potato.

“The pink fir apple is our main potato now. We’re the southeast’s, and probably the UK’s, biggest producer of them,” she said.

The potato in question is long and knobbly, with a slight pink tint, a dense, waxy texture and a subtle nutty flavour.

“We buy the seed from Scotland, a couple of tonnes, and get about 70 tonnes of crop from it,” Nicki said. “We then sell about a tonne a week to restaurants and wholesale markets.

“They’re good just boiled in their skins and they’re great cold the next day, so always make too many.

“They’re perfect quartered and roasted on a baking tray with oil and whatever else you like. “I also enjoy them dipped in Camembert. I’ll do anything with these potatoes!”

Before they make it to the cooking stage, all the potatoes grown on Morghew Estate have to pass through the sorting room.

A large contraption of metal, belts and meshes sorts the big from the small. The size of the mesh depends on the variety of potato and how big it’s supposed to be. The too big are destined to become jackets, the too small animal feed.

The remaining majority are then crated up and moved to a large storage unit, where they stay until they’re sold.

“We keep it between two and four degrees and we keep it dark,” Nicki said. “They go green and grow in the light. We pump out ethylene to stop them sprouting, but we never spray them with chemicals.

“There’s 700 tonnes of potatoes in here when it’s full. You can’t move!

“We need to sell all the potatoes we’ve got left before next harvest. Last year’s are still good, but at this time of year, people want new potatoes.”

Apart from selling to restaurants and wholesale markets, The Potato Shop has an honesty stall on site, open 365 days a year, where customers are trusted to take what they want and leave the right money behind.

They also take their wares to farmers’ markets, and were one of the very first stalls at the Tunbridge Wells Town Hall market. Though they no longer sell there since losing the employee who ran it, they still supply several restaurants in the area, and donate potatoes to the Tunbridge Wells food bank.

But one place you won’t find their spuds is in supermarket aisles.

“We don’t grow enough and they don’t pay enough!” said Nicki.

But the supermarkets’ losses don’t have to be ours. If your only exposure to potatoes comes from trips to Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Waitrose, you can be forgiven for thinking they come in limited shapes and shades.

At Morghew Park Estate, they come any way you care to name. One of the most eye-catching of all is the Vitelotte, whose striking purple flesh retains its colour during cooking, and can brighten up any dish or plate.

“I’m always looking to try something new”, said Nicki.

“We’re going to be growing less round, white potatoes from now on, and more long pinks and blues.

“If we get lucky with the weather we’ll be harvesting all of the potatoes in September.”

If you can’t wait until then, their honesty stall is open from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week, every day of the year.

And if the impending end of the asparagus season leaves a hole in your heart, why not look at an old friend in a new light, and fall back in love with the humble spud.

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