Matthew Fort waxes lyrical about the arrival of new potatoes on the veg garden scene, and offers suggestions for how best to eat these summer treats.
Summer seems to have made up its mind to put in an appearance. Mme Alfred Carrière roses scramble all over the Doyenne de Comice pear tree, the creamy pink blossoms popping out all over the place. The beds are lined with green promise: wavy bands of carrot fronds (James Scarlet Intermediate; Manchester Table, Jaune de Doube); perky beetroot tops (Chioggia, Cheltenham Green Top, Red Ace); undulating zucchini plants (Romanesco, Serpente di Sicilian); the frills of Webbs Wonder lettuces and Rossa di Trento); peas (British Woner, Early Pedigree, Douce de Provence, Champion of England) straggling over peas sticks; upright ranks of broad beans (Dobie’s Dreadnought. Purple Podded, Crimson Flowered); and bushy French beans (Maxidor, Beurre de Rocquencourt, Cupidon). There are cucumbers climbing up inside the greenhouse and tomatoes (John Baer, Pantano, Noire de Crimée, Orange Peruche, Sungold) catch the sun against the west facing side wall of the conservatory.
But of all the vegetables at this time of the year, none give me so much pleasure as a new potato, another vegetable delight we owe to the Americas. I know they take a lot of space that could usefully be devoted to other vegetables. Their productivity is uncertain. And there are always a few small ones of last year’s crop that remain hidden away in the loam. Even the most assiduous digging misses until a lusty haulm bursts up in the middle of the immaculate lines of onions, carrots, beetroot etc. Do I let it flourish to add this year’s crop that I’ve sown elsewhere or do I dig it up, leaving a gap like a lost tooth in the lovely ribbon of greenery? The lot of the veg gardener is never an easy one.
On the other hand, potatoes are undemanding vegetables. If you’re pressed for space, you can grow them in the ground or in a tub or even in a grow bag. I am a traditionalist. It’s in the ground for me. Whether ‘First Early’, or ‘Maincrop’, I always start by chitting mine in February. In early March I dig a trench the depth of my spade, although I see that the RHS recommends 15 cm. I place a chitted tuber sprouting eye-upwards every 15 ins or so, and then pile the earth back on top. In the course of time the haulms - potato shoots - will burst through the surface. I earth them up again, and that’s it until it’s time to start harvesting them round about now.
The delight of digging them up gives me almost as much pleasure of eating them, watching the clods of earth breaking apart from fork or spade, spying the first pale spherical treasure gleaming against the brown, and then another and then another, shaking them free, plonking them into the bucket or trug, seven, eight, nine of them, turning back to excavate further, counting all the time. I think the most tubers off a single dig was 18.
And, other than asparagus, I can think of no vegetable to match the sparkling pleasure of eating a spud dug from the ground, boiled or steamed, and eaten within the hour, slippery with butter and dusted with salt. It is one of the most divine taste/flavour sensations of the whole year. These early tubers have an unmatched sweetness, perfumed flouriness, penetrating nuttiness, creamy precision. I’ve been known to eat a whole plateful of them and nothing else.
What variety to grow? I’ve experimented over the years:
Sharpe’s Express, Red Duke of York, Charlotte, Ratte, Kerr’s Pink, Rosval, International Kidney (aka Jersey Royal), Pink Fir Apple. I'm always on the look out for a better tasting spud. Pink Fir Apples are universally popular. I have a fondness for Sharpe’s Express and International Kidney. This year it’s the turn of British Queen, a tasty, floury, white number first grown in Scotland in 1894 and that I tried with much success last year; and for the first time. on the enthusiastic endorsement of a tuber-loving friend of mine, Vivaldi, a modern, waxy Second Early all-rounder developed in the Netherlands. ‘It tastes like the potatoes of my youth’, said my pal.
Well, we’ll see. I’m just about to go and dig up the very first Vivaldi. I hope it’ll prove to be as cheering as the summer section of Red Priest’s Four Seasons.
How to cook new potatoes
There’s no doubt in my mind that the best way to eat new potatoes is when they’re no bigger than a plum, and as I suggested earlier, bathed in butter. and nothing other than salt. But that’s not to say it’s the only way.
When very young I like them:
crushed with a fork, doused in a light olive oil and flecked with black pepper. - sliced thickly, stirred into a vinaigrette with chives sprinkled over the top.
simmered in vinaigrette with a cup of chicken or vegetable stock added to it, cooled slightly and served warm.
When slightly older:
steamed and slathered lightly in harissa
wrapped in foil and baked in the embers of the barbecue
splashed with top quality olive oil, mixed with fat ribbons of roasted peppers and strips of anchovy from a tin.
mixed into mayonnaise with capers.
This story originally appeared on House & Garden UK