Home-grown potatoes are always rich in flavour and noticeably more tasty than anything you can buy. Perhaps this is because of less intensive methods of growing, or perhaps it is because potatoes from the garden can be cooked immediately after they are lifted. There is probably a little bit of psychology involved too. The effort and time involved in the production of home-grown potatoes naturally makes us want to fully savour and enjoy the flavours of the crop that we have planted, nurtured and harvested ourselves.
Generally, it has been a successful season for potatoes. Early varieties are producing sizeable harvests, and slug damage to tubers seems to be minimal this year, probably because of drier soil conditions throughout June. I always look forward to the first crop of ‘Anya’, ‘Romano’, ‘Ratte’ and ‘Belle de Fontenay’. I was lifting them last week, and although the flavour of ‘Belle de Fontenay’ is even more pronounced after they have been stored for a month or two, it was hard to resist boiling the first few that came out of the soil. This variety is thought to have originated in France in the 1800s, and has creamy-yellow, waxy flesh that needs only butter and some finely chopped mint to create a special dish.
Another variety that is quickly joining my list of favourites is ‘Mayan Gold’. It is a more recently introduced potato with the same waxy texture and full flavour, but its flesh is distinctly yellow. It not only tastes delicious, but it is also one of the most attractive potatoes in the garden when it is in full bloom. Bright purple flowers are displayed in neat clusters and held high above robust stems of dark foliage. ‘Salad Blue’ also has purple blossom, but the main reason for growing this old-fashioned variety is for the purple flesh of its potatoes. After boiling and mashing, ‘Salad Blue’ retains its wonderful colour which is even more startling against the backdrop of a white plate. Expect plenty of comments from guests at the table!
All of the varieties mentioned above are earlies. I have long since given up the battle of growing a collection of maincrop varieties in Cumbria because there is a much better chance of avoiding blight with early varieties which are lifted before the disease has had a chance to take hold. Slugs also have much less time to attack the tubers of early varieties – later varieties have to spend much more time in the soil. Also, the space in the garden that is left behind after lifting first or second earlies can then be used for sowing crops of salad leaves or fast-growing annuals such as poppies or coriander. Having said this, I can never resist planting a few ‘Pink Firapple’; they store so well, are delightfully waxy, and I think they are one of the most flavoursome potatoes for winter use.
At the same time as storing potatoes for eating, there is the option of selecting and storing a few of the healthiest tubers for planting next spring. It is usually recommended that gardeners buy fresh seed potatoes every year in case tubers produced in domestic gardens have been infected with viral diseases. This makes a lot of sense. I have to admit, however, I have been selecting and storing my own seed potatoes for many years without any problems or reduction in size or quality of crops. Seed potatoes need to be kept in a cool, dark, frost-free place where the temperature remains constant during winter. I keep mine in an old-fashioned pantry, wrapped in hessian sacks in cardboard boxes until the end of January. At the beginning of February they are then taken from the darkness and laid out in trays in the light in order to form sprouts. Those with the healthiest sprouts are planted in the garden around the end of March, depending on the weather. And the whole potato growing cycle begins again.