Hot Potato

21 Jul 2005

Jersey Royal potatoes taste better when not forced under polythene covering, are grown on steep, south-facing slopes, matured with ‘vraic’ (the local name for seaweed), and harvested by hand.

That, at least, is popular wisdom both in Jersey, in the British Channel Islands, and among the many enthusiastic consumers of this, the island’s most famous export, in the UK, where the potato is seen, every year, almost as a herald of spring.

And it explains why, every year, there are comments publicised both within the island and from outside it from disappointed Jersey Royal consumers, complaining that the modern Royal potato has ‘lost its flavour’ and does not taste at all as it did in days gone by.

The blame is put on the use of polythene coverings on the potato fields to force the potatoes to be as early as possible, and the use of modern fertilisers rather than the traditional vraic or cow dung.

How true is this loss of taste? Certainly the scientific answer is that this perceived taste decline is all nonsense, and scientific tasting tests conducted several years ago in England for the Jersey government agricultural authorities concluded that there was no difference in taste whatsoever between Jersey Royal potatoes grown, for example, with the help of vraic or cow manure, and that of potatoes grown under polythene covering, year after year, on the same flat land in the middle of the Island – in fact the use of polythene has been said actually to enhance the taste!

The Slow Food Jersey Convivium held an event on Saturday May 14 to test, in a blind potato tasting, whether traditionally cultivated Jersey Royals had a quality edge over other Jersey Royals.

So what is a blind potato tasting?

Well, as far as possible like a blind wine tasting, except there is no spitting.

In blind wine tastings there is no clue as to what the wine is, and the tasters have to guess its origin and what its quality is like. The blind potato tasting followed the same principle.

Down a long table there were 12 separate bowls of Jersey Royals, each bowl labelled only by code index letter, and each bowl contained potatoes grown in a slightly different way: eg, grown on sand with vraic, grown on land rotated with cattle pasture, or fertilised with dung, or on land used always for growing potatoes as a monoculture.

The tasters’ task was to score the quality of the potatoes and to see whether they could actually tell the difference between potatoes grown under polythene or without polythene, freshly dug potatoes against ones dug a few days before, and so on.

There were two prizes each of a bottle of champagne for the grower whose potato had been given most points by the tasters, and for the taster who had correctly identified the most individual samples.

The event took place at a restaurant, the Portinfer, whose proprietor, Alan Mason, has been a keen supporter of local Island produce, and was attended by around 30 members of the Jersey convivium and their guests.

First place was awarded to smallholder Jon Hackett, for potatoes grown with the help of his own pigs’ manure. But the top four samples out of a total of 12 were extremely close, with only one-fifth of one point separating the four winners.

In this almost dead heat, second place went to Richard Le Boutillier of Woodlands Farm, for potatoes not grown under polythene with cow dung – he and his wife, Nicki, sell their potatoes on the Internet:

Third place went to Peter Simon (his exports are handled by the marketing company Jersey Quality Produce), for potatoes grown on sand with vraic, and fourth place went to John Hamon’s organic potatoes from Vermont Farm.

Significantly more tasters could easily distinguish the taste of potatoes grown without polythene than with polythene, and of potatoes lifted that morning over potatoes lifted three days before. Potatoes grown on flat land that alternated from horticulture to dairy pasture as part of a farming rotation system scored higher than potatoes grown on a south-facing coastal slope, or land used year-on-year for potatoes.

The tasting was not exactly a deathly serious affair, but the consensus of honest impressions of so many people nevertheless does carry some weight. It was interesting that there were so many distinguishable flavours among the samples.

The results will not surprise those who have always been convinced anyway that traditional methods of growing the Jersey Royal are the best. But they do contradict the findings of those UK taste tests!

Slow Food Jersey intends to make this tasting an annual competitive event, with the aim of promoting the quality factor of the Jersey Royal potato among commercial producers, large or small.

Alasdair Crosby is the organizer of the Slow Food Convivium in Jersey and works as a journalist on Jersey’s newspaper, as well as contributing to the Farmers Weekly, France and Ecologist magazines

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