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

Herbs – cornerstones of cuisine 2013

The weather has remained relentlessly foul for the last 5 days and it has been impossible to get outside to garden, and now I have returned to work.  It doesn’t really matter and I enjoy looking at the sideways squal from my window while I sit at my computer. The first day back always takes some adjustment and I probably bit off more than I could chew.

The Red Queen Again

Following a post-work meeting, I had resolved to kick off my new 10 km running training plan yesterday. As a regular runner, this was not a New Year’s resolution, which I find futile and a bit pointless.  I prefer to run outside but wanted to kick-start my plan with a time trial for 10 km, which meant checking my pace on the treadmill at the gym, and so I was like the Red Queen, quite literally running to stand still.  The shock of an enforced break from running (2 weeks for flu, another for festivities) took its toll on my limbs and although my pace was around what I was aiming for, it was a punishing session…

So many choices, not enough space

The current herb bed with dominating horsradish and a few herbaceous perrenials thrown in.

The current herb bed with dominating horseradish and a few herbaceous perennials and annuals thrown in.

Happily, day two is a rest day from running, and a relief for my quadraceps and this evening was an ideal opportunity to browse seed catalogues and plan what to plant this year. I tend to be systematic and work through groups, e.g. herbs, brassicas, roots, polytunnel crops, herbs and flowers.  I started with herbs and flowers because they cause me less of a quandary.  I don’t grow many flowers at the moment as most of my 3/4 acre plot is mainly unimproved grassland, exposed and browsed by deer.  I concentrate on the smaller areas we have so far brought under cultivation and protection.

I was however somewhat distracted by the arrival of James Wong’s book Homegrown Revolution.  I caught the end of a Radio 4 interview with James back in October, but missed both his name and that of the book and forgot to listen again on iPlayer, so when this book was mentioned on The Garden Deli, I recognised that this was the book referred to in the discussion, so thanks for connecting me with the world of tomatillos and mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum).  The claims that many of these crops can be grown in the UK will be tested to the limit here on North Uist (discussion for a future post?) but worth trying some new exciting veg and fruit to spice up the garden.

I have only one herb bed at the moment, the overspill being housed in pots in the polytunnel, on windowsills and companion planted in the raised beds with other crops. My herb bed is also becoming dominated by horseradish, which will eventually need to be moved although I currently harvest enough to try to keep its vigorous growth in check.

Last year, I grew about 15 different herbs, all but a few for culinary use, and this year there will be a few more additions.  There are some herbs I simply cannot grow enough of, particularly basil, coriander, rosemary and thyme.  I can overwinter both rosemary and thyme in the polytunnel, but it is my excessive pruning that takes the real toll on the plants.  Conversely, Water Mint, Mentha aquatica is established and invasive in the garden and I can never get it under control, let alone use enough of it for cooking.

Harvesting seed from dried caraway heads

Harvesting seed from dried caraway heads

As ever, it’s good to have a mix of tried and tested and new varieties.  The big successes last year were chervil, a must for fish (I still have some outside now). Last summer was my second caraway harvest.  I leave some of this biennial umbellifer to self seed to ensure a yield each year.  These seeds have a very powerful flavour compared to shop bought seeds and I adore them in bread. Finally, I am slightly smug about my coriander harvest.  I used to buy coriander seeds from catalogues but it bolts very quickly here so repeated successional sowings were expensive.  I decided to try the large bag of seeds I had in the kitchen that I bought for cooking at an Indian supermarket in Glasgow.  Amazingly, germination rate was very high and one packet costing 60p has kept me going all year, so I will stick to the same plan for 2013.

I had one or two new herbs I had not grown before.  Summer savory was a winner and essential in many classic French dishes and bouquet garnis.  I was gifted hyssop by Christine at Croft Garden, a herb aficionado. Although I occasionally used it sparingly in the kitchen for vinaigrettes,salads and boullion, its beautiful blue flowers were a real hit with the bumblebees.

The final shortlist

My final culinary shortlist for growing this year is:

Rosemary, thyme (Summer de Provence and English Winter), sage, chervil, chives, bay, oregano (Greek), basil (Sweet, Red Rubin, Cinnamon, Mrs Burns), fennel, anise, coriander, lavender, French tarragon (plants), marjoram, winter savory, summer savory, caraway, parsley (flat leaf and the hardier curly), dill and rocket.

Nearer 30 than my estimated 15!

I have an additional list grown principally for flowers and hence wildlife:

hyssop, borage, phaecelia

The turf roof of the workshop has been established for a year so I am also planning to sow a ‘bumblebee seed mix’ of native wild flowers to grow on the roof.  The turf and soil were sourced locally from machair grassland and the species compliment is mainly typical of this habitat and includes corn marigold, knapweed, corn poppy, kidney vetch and slender vetch.

North Uist machair turf on the workshop roof awaits bumblebee wildflower seed mix

North Uist machair turf on the workshop roof awaits bumblebee wildflower seed mix

As usual, I will grow copious amounts of nasturtiums for salads, flowers and caper-like berries – also to divert the green-veined white caterpillars away from my brassicas and salads.

Although the garden is decidedly practical at the moment, I hope to design and landscape a courtyard at the front of the house incorporating tiered raised herb beds.  This however, is some way off as this area is likely to be a building site for another year or two.  I can but dream…

Apologies for not including the scientific names, life is too short at the mo and I am focussing on general culinary properties. If there are any startling omissions you think I should try, I would be delighted to have suggestions.  I am sure I could squeeze a few more in!

Intensely Herby recipes

Of course, no post would be complete without sharing a couple of recipes.  Both of these use copious amounts of herbs and are flexible and can be adapted according to what herbs and how much of each you may have or wish to include.

Vegetable boullion

This has become a store cupboard essential for me.  There is nothing wrong with some shop bought powdered boullions, but they do tend to give recipes an underlying generic recognisable flavour. Although I do like to make my own vegetable stocks, I do not always have time or the recipe does not call for stock but a little lift from the addition of a spoonful this boullion. I use it in anything and everything – soups, casseroles, cooking liquid for rice, cous cous, etc.

The boullion stores very well (at least 6 months). There’s a lot of salt in it, acting as a preservative, so I don’t usually season if I add some boullion to a dish. I make a batch in summer and another in winter, by which time the summer batch is finished. I am just coming to the end of my summer batch now. These can vary significantly in character, depending on what veg and herbs are at my disposal at different times of the year, and one has to be careful not to tip the balance too much in favour of particularly strong ingredients – unless that’s what you are aiming for, of course. This is a variation on the recipe in the River Cottage Handbook No 2 Preserves called ‘Souper mix’.

The last jar of my summer boullion

The last jar of my summer boullion

Ingredients – my summer vegetable boullion

250g leek

200g carrot

200g turnip

100g celery

50g sun-dried tomatoes

3 garlic cloves

100g parsley

10g mint

10g rosemary

5g summer savory

5g sage

250g salt

This amount made 3 jars

Method

  • Cram everything into a food processor (there is a large volume of herbs), pulse then blend to form a moist granular paste.
  • Store in sterilised jars and keep in the fridge once open.

Blitzing the herbs and veg for boullion

Blitzing the herbs and veg for boullion

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto

Pesto can be made from a wide range of herbs and leaves and I often ring the changes depending on whatever is the current garden glut.  Nasturtium leaves bring an added bit of zing to this pesto. Proportions of the herbs can be altered to taste, or any one exchanged for parsley. Fresh pesto will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.  It’s so good, it never lasts that long here.

Ingredients

25g nasturtium leaves

25g basil leaves

25g rocket leaves

50g fresh grated parmesan

50g pine nuts

2 cloves garlic, peeled

200 ml good quality extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp salt

a few turns of pepper

Method

  • Put all ingredients in a food processor, pulse then blitz for a minute or so, until smooth.
  • Store in a jar in the fridge.

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto - green and glorious

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto – green and glorious

Now all the planning for herbs is in place, time to move on to veg, but not before we deal with two greylag geese a friend has kindly delivered to us.  I know what we will be doing tomorrow evening….