Potato Anathema?

I have a confession to make.  I can’t get too excited about the prospect of eating potatoes. There, I’ve said it.  The Scots are not so different from the Irish in their general adulation of tatties, notably here in the Outer Hebrides, where a confession such as this is tantamount to blasphemy.

‘Machair potatoes’ are a key conversation topic here and are generally loved by all (machair potatoes explained in due course).  I have experienced many a heated debate about varieties, passions rising most in the ‘waxy versus floury’ subject area.  The consensus here seems to be floury potatoes are tops, with varieties like Rooster and Desiree generating most excitement – ‘Machair potatoes are a meal in themselves’, I’ve been told.

I know, potatoes are a cheap and plentiful crop that can grow in a wide variety of climates and locales. They do have culinary versatility and are a key source of carbohydrate.

All that said,  the prospect of eating a plain boiled potato, especially a floury one, with the traditional addition of butter, no matter how much it is cited as machair, fresh, local and delicious leaves me cold. The sensation of claggy carbohydrate sticking to the roof of my mouth is not one I have learned to appreciate. Given the diversity of carbohydrate choices out there, I’m mystified why potatoes predominate, but for tradition and habit. Give me cous cous, rice or pasta in preference any day.

For those not interested in the experience of growing potatoes please see potato recipes at the bottom.

The Potato Enigma

And then there is the issue of growing potatoes.  Here is a crop that takes up a huge amount of space, especially if you really want to factor a potato plot into an organic rotation.  Many varieties are subject to a range of pests and diseases (not least the notorious blight), hence the rotational requirement.

Potatoes are cheap and always available to buy in the shops and if they are dressed up significantly in a recipe, can you seriously tell the difference in flavour between fresh potatoes bought from a shop and those grown at home? (I know this statement will be like a red rag to a bull for some readers)   Better still, buying potatoes from a farmers market or local veg growing co-op will eliminate supermarkets and alleviate the feeling that such potatoes are ‘not the same’ as home-grown and at the same time support local growers.  So why bother to grow them at home at all?

In justification, if you have the space, why not? Or maybe a desire could be borne out of nostalgia – memories of helping a parent or grandparent – planting, digging, eating together? It could just be intrinsic love of the taste of the humble spud.

I have come to appreciate that I generally find growing potatoes more exciting than eating them. For me, the best thing about growing potatoes is the physicality of the experience.  Chitting and preparing the tubers is very tactile. Digging the soil in preparation for planting and barrowing on manure can be tough physical labour, especially when breaking new ground. The satisfaction of raking the prepared soil to cover over the seed potato, knowing its nascent and continued growth will yield an incredible edible crop as it withers away to  rancid mush.

Then comes the quiescent period of growth and what is essentially crop abandonment, save for some ridging of the haulms. The mystery of what lies beneath. The soil is untouched by fork or hoe and left largely to get on with growing for a few months.  There is growing anticipation of seeing the fresh tubers exhumed from the earth, pale and interesting.  I enjoy embedding my arms in the cool, freshly turned loose soil, clawing it back with my bare hands to capture stragglers that I fear I may pierce with my fork.  Then the physical experience turns to inquisition. How much did each seed potato yield? Which variety did well? How healthy is the crop? Any scab? Blight?

Once they are off the plot and in the darkened storage of a hessian sack, my fervour  subsides.  I gather the potato of choice for inclusion in a meal, the right texture to suit my needs, waxy, floury, all-rounder. I work to dress them up in an enticing way. I check the stored crop regularly to ensure they are all in good condition to extend storage as long as possible. Then, as I did today, I browse seed potato suppliers websites, having decided that I can’t bear to miss the experience of the potato growing process this year.

Anya - planted in my now defunct asparagus bed

Anya – freshly dug in autumn from my now defunct asparagus bed

Potato growing pains

I must admit, the decision was a close call.  Despite my best efforts, my experiences of growing potatoes here have been mixed and at times frustrating as well as downright disheartening. Last year featured peaks and troughs.  The trough was definitely the abysmal early/second early crop.

Potato planting bags

After text book care and chitting of Pentland Javelin and Charlotte potatoes, I decided to use 12 potato bags and a precious supply of my own compost.  I did not want early potatoes to take up valuable space in a raised bed that I wanted to use for other veg.  I also thought of this as a potential solution to the rotation issue.  I  wanted to give them a strong start in the polytunnel and move them outside to a sheltered spot when the worst of the gales had passed.

Four potatoes were added to each bag, compost topped up as the haulms grew.  The plants quickly grew sturdy and tall and when it came time for my tomatoes to be planted in the tunnel, I hardened the potatoes off and moved them outside.  I gave them a light feed of dilute liquid feed from my wormery, watered regularly and thought I was assured of success.

Earlies in potato bags - in their death throws

Earlies in potato bags – in their death throws

I was concerned when the haulms died back a bit earlier than I anticipated and without showing many flowers.  Nonetheless, I let them die back a bit more, harvesting just a bit after the suggested date for each variety (because of our latitude).  I tipped the contents of the first bag into the wheelbarrow, expecting a great bulk of white tubers to roll forth.  After picking my way through the compost, I found the seed potato and estimated a yield of just 4 or 5 potatoes per seed planted.

Emptying bag after bag, the result was the same.  First I was despondent, then mortified that I could not grow a tuber cited as ‘easy, great in bags on patios, big yield.’ I am too scarred by the experience to try this method again this year – and my compost is too precious. If any one has any suggestions as to what may have gone wrong, I’d be happy to know.  No disease was evident on the leaves, or the tubers.

Machair Potatoes

Yes, those much revered machair potatoes. supposed to taste superior as a result of growing in this exceptional habitat. Last year I was fortunate to gain access to a small machair plot to grow potatoes on the Isle of Benbecula.

Machair is rare, coastal grassland, unique to the north-western fringe of Europe. About 70% in western Scotland, the largest proportion being on The Southern Isles of the Outer Hebrides (from Berneray to Barra) hence the global significance of the conservation value of the habitat.

Machair forms when sand with very high shell content blows landwards by prevailing westerly winds, creating a fertile, low-lying plain. The unique compliment of biodiversity found in association with machair relies on habitats managed by traditional low intensity crofting methods where grazing regimes, rotational cropping and minimal use of pesticides and inorganic fertilisers results in a mosaic of habitats and a proliferation of a diverse array of wild flowers in the summer.

Corncrakes, corn buntings and the enigmatic and rare great yellow bumblebee rely on machair habitats to breed and forage, as do waders such as lapwing, redshank, dunlin and ringed plover. Beautiful swathes of flowering bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and lesser knapweed (Centaurea nigra) carpet the machair grasslands, flowering successionally from mid to late summer, providing forage for the bumblebees and other pollinating insects.

Great yellow bumblebee on red clover (Copyright: NHM.ac.uk)

Great yellow bumblebee on red clover (Copyright: NHM.ac.uk)

Rotational corn crops are bounded by a high diversity of flowering arable weeds, different flowers predominating at different stages in the traditional 2 year crop / 2 year fallow rotation practiced in some townships. Potato patches add to the mosaic being little islands of arable weed diversity between the patchwork of sown machair corn strips and are cropped at a new site each year. A useful and more comprehensive summary about the machair habitat and the species it supports can be found here.

I got pretty excited about having access to the patch, however, it took some time to organise exactly where it would be and it was then kindly ploughed for our benefit.  I wasn’t there when this was done, so driving round trying to find a pretty small strip in a patchwork of others while it is being described to me on the phone was challenging. ‘It’s by the second fence post. level with the gate and so-and-so’s patch.’ (!) It’s a miracle I planted the potatoes in the right place – and managed to find the patch again as the surrounding corn and grassland grew and entirely changed the lay of the land!

machair potato plot in mid-summer

machair potato plot in mid-summer

Harvesting at the end of the season

Harvesting at the end of the season

So, we planted a bit late (April) and tucked the potatoes under the turned furrows and crossed our fingers.  The summer was exceptionally dry and I returned at the end of May to add some organic fertiliser.  The potatoes were doing great, despite the conditions as the turned turf of the furrows locked in moisture.  We harvested at the end of September, taking a moderate yield, not surprising since we planted so late, and because we included a couple of heritage varieties we could not expect to produce high yields.

The star for yield was Red King Edward, also for condition and flavour – sublime for roasters.  Picasso also did exceptionally well.  The heritage purple waxy variety Edgcote Purple had a lower yield, unsurprisingly but was a great potato for pomme fondant, caldo verde and tartiflette. Markies was a big disappointment – very low yield.  I planted Anya at home in my old asparagus bed.  The yield wasn’t great but what little we had were in good condition and stored well. In all, we got about 60 kg.  They are storing well, but way too much for 2 of us, so we will share out the remainder before quality declines.

Potatoes –  (another) new approach

Lovely as it was to be out on the machair surrounded by waders and wild flowers, the plot was 15 miles away, so not convenient for checking and planting dates were beyond my control and too late, really.  This year, I am planning to reclaim a bit of our garden to give potatoes another chance. I will plant varieties Swift, Anya, Kestrel, Red King Edward and Picasso. I don’t want to give over a precious raised bed, but we have an old ruined blackhouse (traditional stone house with a thatched roof) shell in the garden.  We think the walls are about 1m or so high most of the way round, but it is so heavily vegetated, it’s hard to tell – as you can see from the photo, it just looks like a ridge of turf.garden house 1

In fact, when we viewed the house before buying it was mid-summer and nettles completely obscured it and it wasn’t until after we moved in winter we found it.  Our neighbour is knowledgeable about local history and told us that at one time the building was an inn that served the local community and that a ferry used to run to the bay at the bottom of our garden when the tide was in.  Information about when is scant but according to our neighbour, a man left the inn on foot one night and was later found drowned, thereafter it closed.

It will be tough work digging it out and goodness knows what we will find.  It will serve as a small walled garden until we figure out what we might ultimately do with it.

Finally, a few images of the garden just now, showing the dichotomy between the ravages of winter gales on the leeks and the first hopeful signs of spring from the chives and garlic. The weather has been so beautiful, clear calm and sunny these last few days, there has been a little growth spurt.  Fingers crossed we don’t get too many severe gales this spring.

Can you tell what it is yet?

Can you tell what it is yet?

garden chives

Happy garlic

Happy garlic

Potato recipes

Plain potatoes (roast excepted) may be out for me, but there are a few cunning ways to dress the potato to form wonderful dishes, that I admit.  I previously provided a recipe for pomme fondant.  Here I share Aloo Chaat, which I make to accompany curries and also the deliciously alpine tartiflette.

Aloo chaat

This well known hot and sour North Indian street food is delicious for lunch or supper or served alongside curry.  The wonderful tangy hot flavour is created by the addition of tamarind.

Ingredients

500g potatoes

1 green chilli, seeded and chopped

1 red chilli seeded and chopped

1/2 tsp chilli powder

1/4 tsp salt

2 tbsp. tamarind water, or pulp, liquidised with some water.

1 red onion, finely chopped

2 tbsp. fresh mint

2 tbsp. fresh coriander

splash of groundnut oil

Method

  • Boil the peeled diced potatoes until soft and fry gently in some flavourless oil.
  • Blend the rest of the ingredients except the onion.
  • Stir the onion and blended ingredients through the potatoes and serve.  Simple and makes potatoes taste deeply interesting – and hot!

garden pot curry

Tartiflette

If you are looking for gratuitous cheesy potato indulgence, tartiflette is a good place to start. Tartiflette hails from from the Alpine  Haute Savoie region of France and contains deliciously creamy Reblochon cheese, an unpasteurised soft washed rind cows cheese that is gentle and nutty. Some recipes use a whole wheel of cheese, sitting atop the potatoes and letting it melt and ooze down through them, but I thought that was perhaps a bit excessive, so used a sliced half. The dish looks pretty rustic but is incredibly tasty.

I took the opportunity to buy some cheese (more on that another time), including Reblochon as I specifically wanted to use it to make tartiflette.  The trouble is, when I buy this cheese it is mysteriously nibbled to the extent that there is never enough to make the dish.  I got there just in time to have enough.  The dish is best served by using waxy potatoes.  I used Edgecote Purple potatoes and left the skins on, for colour, texture and flavour. It is rich, so lightly dressed green salad is a fine accompaniment.

Ingredients

800g waxy potatoes, boiled

a knob of butter

splash of olive oil

I onion, sliced

150g pancetta

60ml double cream

1/2  a Reblochon round

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C

Method

  • Boil the potatoes and slice or dice them, set to one side.
  • Soften the onion in the butter and oil until translucent, add the pancetta and cook both until slightly golden at the edges.  Remove from the pan and set to one side.
  • Put the potatoes in the pan and gently fry until slightly golden at the edges.
  • Place the potatoes in a gratin dish together with the panchetta and onion, pour over the cream, season to taste.
  • Place the Reblochon slices over the surface of the potatoes.
  • Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.

Après-ski personified!

tartiflette

Garlic: A year in the life

Allium sativum – pleased to pleat you…Planting finished, the remaining bulbs were pleated.

I don’t remember a time in my life when garlic was not part of my diet. One of the best cooking aromas must be the pungent scent of garlic gently frying in good quality olive oil. I am very fortunate that my mum cooked with olive oil when I was a child, a time when most mums were still only sticking it in their children’s ears. Similarly, garlic was a culinary delight in our everyday meals and I didn’t give it a second thought until I noticed the lack of it when I had tea (as we called it then) at friend’s houses.

Garlic is my number one favourite ingredient and is one of the big four, one or more of which I invariably use every day (chilli, olive oil, lemons being the other three). From the outset, I have been determined to grow garlic successfully here on North Uist. If you fling it in the ground and hope for the best, you will get results of sorts, but random gardening, as I have found out to my cost with many veggies is a bit foolhardy if you live here. In fact, typical Uist climatic conditions (wind, rain – and persistence of both) mean the weather can be merciless even if you do your green-fingered best.

So, I have been on a strategic programme of growing trials to optimise my garlic growing success. It has taken 4 years of experimenting, but I tentatively consider that I may at last be on the cusp of success. I have tried soft neck versus hardneck, autumn versus spring planting, numerous varieties: Albigensian Wight, Bella Italiano, Solent Wight, Early Purple Wight to name but a few. Comparisons were made in yield and bulb size as well as storage time. I concluded that softneck garlic produces higher yields, produce bigger bulbs and more bulbs that are subject to lower losses in the ground than hardneck varieties. Importantly, the softnecks store for significantly longer, in my experience.

Autumn planting is the only way. I have tried 2 early spring plantings (same varieties and harvest year as the autumn planting). One was a dismal failure, the other less so, but still with a yield well below autumn plantings, regardless of variety. I suspect that our relatively mild winters mean that by the time it gets to planting in early spring, the bulbs do not get the period of cold they require to flourish. The star variety is without a doubt Provence Wight, for size and storage. This is now the only variety I grow. Garlic may not grow as large here as it does further south in the UK, but the cloves are intensely flavoured, which is all that really matters if you are a garlic lover.

Class of 2011 – Garlic crop harvested on 17 July last year

All butchery out of the way (for now) at last (1 deer, 2 geese, then 2 rabbits), I am hoping to get my culinary life back. Hope springs eternal that weather windows will occasionally fall at weekends so I can get on with some outdoor stuff in the garden too. And so it was with fair weather I spent the best part of Sunday getting my favourite Allium into the ground.

If you like to eat garlic, but do not want to read about the minutiae of growing it, skip to my Roast garlic soup with home made pitta bread recipe.

Preparing the bed

I practice a fairly standard organic rotation.  I do not grow entirely organically, but pretty near it.  I have given up using 100% organic seed.  I am not intending to go for Soil Association accreditation and I was finding it restrictive in terms of varieties (and especially ones that work here), and a bit costly. The soil was depleted after a beetroot crop over the summer (pimple-sized beetroots, embarrassingly small).  Hence, the first job was to call one of my neighbours, a local crofter who keeps pigs among other things, to arrange to collect some well-rotted pig manure. Half an hour or so of shovelling and our trailer was full enough to replenish 2-3 raised beds.

After digging a trench in sections along the garlic bed, the manure was dumped at a depth of about 15 cm and the soil raked back over so the garlic can happily dangle their roots into the nutrients as they grow.  This was an easy job in these raised beds.

Adding well-rotted pig manure to add nutrients and texture before planting

I have worked hard to get a fine tilth, sieving and removing stones, essential if root veg, especially carrots are part of your rotation (although I would not manure a bed that carrots are going into).  The soil is very light and free draining and I incorporate a lot of my own compost too for soil conditioning. I also top dress with seaweed over the winter to minimise erosion and  to add more nutrients and minerals.  Some machair soil was also added to lighten the structure and bring the soil to a neutral pH.  Finally, I weed regularly and never stand on the soil surface to avoid compressing it.

Preparing and planting garlic

The 2011 crop was grown from 7 bulbs bought from a commercial grower.  I was a bit disappointed by the number of cloves per bulb, which fell short of that promised in the catalogue (20-25 cloves per bulb.  I got 15 on average).  Some were also very small and this seems to be correlated with small clove development/size.  Nonetheless, with no signs of disease, I got 75 healthy bulbs from the crop, about three-quarters were larger than those you can buy in the supermarkets.

This year, I am using part of the crop from last summer’s harvest – my next trial, I suppose. I prepared them by selecting the biggest bulbs from my stored garlic, then selecting the biggest and healthiest cloves from these bulbs.  Any that were slightly soft or damaged were kept for cooking, but there were very few.  By this time, the light was fading, so being up against it and in trying to be ‘efficient’ I managed to somehow slash the side of my hand with the scalpel while separating the cloves. There was an interlude to deal with the ensuing minor bloodbath and melodrama.  More haste less speed, as the saying goes!

Preparing for the soil

I wanted to fill the entire bed with the crop and it took me 14 bulbs to do this, a total of 144 cloves.  I always compress the soil slightly with a plank of wood which also acts as a planting guide. Some compression helps the garlic stay put in the wind while the roots get established, since they are planted with the tops just under the surface. Each was spaced about 10 cm apart along the row, each row about 20 cm apart.

Garlic cloves in situ in neat rows of compressed soil.

Despite the race against the light on a short winter day, I got the planting finished, although admittedly it was quite dark and I had to finish the job with the help of the workshop lights.

Imagine my consternation when I got up the next morning to admire my work in daylight to find the night crawlers had been in.  There were cat paw prints across the bed, which I can cope with, but there were also about 35 very neat little holes which garlic cloves no longer occupied.  I don’t think it was the cat, but I should have perhaps asked my neighbour to check her cat’s breath…  I had my suspicions about the culprit, especially since most cloves were missing at the end near the dry stone wall.

I have known blackbirds to inquisitively pull at the papery tops of the cloves after the first day of planting but I usually see their tracks and the cloves are rejected and left nearby on the surface. No cloves to be seen, or dead blackbirds lying about having choked on the chunky cloves. Being rather trusting, and indeed sticking my head in the sand, I decided to leave it another night to see if the novelty would wear off for the critter (or it might have a garlic overdose).  Hardly.  Next morning, same again, 15 cloves missing.

I couldn’t sustain losses at this rate and after re-planting 50 cloves – another 4 bulbs, and having a suspicion this was the work of a rodent,  I went for belt and braces, covering the crop with environmesh and setting up a tunnel along the wall with 2 rat traps in it.  Both measures would protect any birds/cats from the traps and would attract rodents to my bait in the tunnel – prime chorizo – 100% irresistable in my experience.  And so it was, my garlic survived intact last night and I found a mouse in one of the traps. These traps are only supposed to spring with the weight of a rat but this was one big mouse (I wonder why?), so it got chorizo, but then its luck ran out.  It is always disappointing to have to take this action, but I want to eat my veg, not supplement the diet of an already burgeoning local rodent population.

Roasted Garlic Soup

Before pleating the remaining intact garlic bulbs, I thought it would be a good idea to use up all the small bulbs and loose cloves in one of my favourite soups, roast garlic.  Roasting the garlic and adding it to the soup makes it wonderfully sweet.  Topping it with dry fried chorizo or cheesy croutons complements the dish with saltiness to balance the sweetness of the roasted garlic. Don’t be put off by the amount of garlic used.  It is quite a different animal when roasted in the oven.

Ingredients

2 large garlic bulbs, left whole

bay leaf

olive oil

onion, chopped

2 carrots, finely chopped

3 large potatoes, diced

sprig of rosemary

1 litre chicken stock or vegetable boullion

500 ml milk

salt and pepper

chorizo, enough for garnish, sliced and dry-fried

parsley

Set the oven to 180oC

Method

Cut the tops off the 2 garlic bulbs to reveal a bit of white flesh in each clove. This will make the soft garlic easy to squeeze out after roasting.  Place them in a foil parcel with a bay leaf and a drizzle of olive oil and bake in the oven for 45 minutes.  Leave aside to cool.

Peel and chop the onion, carrots and potatoes and sweat in a pan on a low heat with a small amount of olive oil for 10-15 minutes.  Add the garlic by taking the cooled bulbs and squeezing each at the base.  The garlic will be soft and should squeeze out like toothpaste.  The aroma is wonderful.

Add the stock and rosemary, season and simmer for about 1 hour.  Let it cool slightly, add the milk, remove the rosemary then blitz in a blender or puree using a hand-held blender. If it too thick (although I like it thick, as in the photo), add a spot more milk or water.  Pass through a sieve or chinois and heat through.

Garnish with parsley and chorizo or cheesy croutons. Serves four.

Home made pitta breads

I served this soup with pitta breads on this occasion. This simple bread regularly features in this house because it is so versatile and easy to make – especially if you have a bread maker. There’s nothing wrong with using a bread maker for dough like pitta or foccacia.  It can be a huge time saver. If you have not made them before, give them a try.  They are astonishingly straightforward to make and are incomparable with the rubbery, slightly stale, vinegary tasting pitta breads you buy in supermarkets.

I am not sure where I got this recipe, I have been using it for so long.

Ingredients

500g strong white flour

2 tsp yeast (easyblend)

25g butter,

1 1/2 tsp salt

310 ml water

Set the oven to 220oC

Method

If you have a breadmaker, fling everything in and set to dough only program. This takes 45 minutes on my Panasonic SD-255 machine – the only breadmaker I would recommend, having had many others that sat on the shelf due to poor performance. I usually let the dough rest for another half hour once the program stops to ensure light and puffy pittas.

Alternatively, you can mix by hand, incorporating all the ingredients then kneading on an oiled surface for 10 minutes.  Allow it to prove for about an hour, covered with cling film in a warm place.

Place the dough on a heavily floured surface and break off golf ball sized pieces of dough with floured hands and roll them into tongue-shaped pittas with a floured rolling pin, to about 3mm thick.  It doesn’t matter if they are a bit misshapen – that’s called rustic, or more current still, artisan. Flour a couple of baking sheets and put the bread in the oven for 8-10 minutes.  I usually turn them half way.  Most will puff up, some won’t but keep an eye on them in case they get too thin and crispy as they puff.

This recipe usually makes 12. I do them in 2 batches of 6, 3 on each baking sheet.  I keep the first batch warm under a tea towel however, we usually start eating them straight away if there is some moutabal or hummous to hand and they are best eaten fresh and still warm from the oven.

They will keep overnight wrapped in a tea towel but need to be re-warmed and get a bit chewy if they are allowed to cool.