The world of potatoes is remarkably diverse, although this might not be all that evident from the shelves of the supermarket or greengrocer. According to the International Potato Center – yes, there really is such a thing – there are more than 4500 varieties growing in the Andes, the ancestral home of the potato. The British Potato Variety Database, www.varieties.potato.org.uk, maintained by the Potato Council lists some 250 varieties. This database is a useful source of information, including on the pest and disease resistance, where known, of different varieties.
The supermarket shelves seem dominated by just a few varieties, although this is not an entirely accurate picture of potato cultivation, as there are still many varieties grown commercially in the UK. According to the Potato Council’s market intelligence report for 2013–14, the top ten varieties in the 2013 season made up 49% of the total planted area, with the main crop Maris Piper leading the chart at 15%, and the oft encountered second early Maris Peer in third place. King Edward, another supermarket regular, is languishing in 10th position, whilst a number of varieties appear to be on the rise, such as Markies, currently second only to Maris Piper, a main crop potato destined for the chippy and crisp manufacturer, and Melody and Harmony, main crops for the general market. These three have one thing in common – they are very recent introductions. Only two of the varieties I grow appear in the top 50 – Charlotte, the second early salad potato, in 16th place, and Wilja, a second early general purpose potato in 23rd. Neither of these is particularly old, either: Charlotte is of French origin, released in 1981, and Wilja is of Dutch origin, released in the mid 1970s.
Most of the potatoes I grow do not show up on this list, nor in the supermarkets, unless in one of those rare packs of heritage sorts. Yet they are, in my view, well worth trying at home. Where regularly troubled by late blight, or some other problematic pest or disease, it is sensible to look to varieties with improved resistance, especially for those who, like me, prefer to garden without resorting to harmful pesticides and fungicides. Differing environmental conditions no doubt impact on which varieties perform best in a given situation so it is always hard to recommend a specific variety. Nonetheless, it is still worth perusing the catalogues of specialist seed potato suppliers and exploring the range of varieties that are available. Whilst yield must be a consideration for the commercial grower, along with the uniformity and storage properties demanded by retailers, the home gardener has the luxury of selecting varieties on other criteria, foremost of which ought to be flavour and texture. It is here that some of the old varieties still have much to offer. The purple-blue skinned Arran Victory, for example, makes a superb mash, far superior, in my view, for that purpose, than any other variety I have tasted, as well as being well suited to roasting. Pink Fir Apple, a very old sort, relatively speaking, dating back to at least the mid-1800s, possibly introduced from France, is another interesting variety. The knobbly elongated tubers with their pink tinged skin are unusual, but it is the nutty flavour and waxy texture that make this late main crop so interesting and useful in the kitchen. Pink Fir Apple is remarkably versatile, retaining new potato like qualities long into storage and making a good salad variety; qualities that are otherwise largely confined to the first and second earlies of summer.
Another interesting potato is Epicure. This is a first early, which is excellent steamed, but also quite delicious sautéed or roasted. Epicure was bred by James Clark and introduced in 1897, a few years after Clark’s death. It is one of a number of rather famous varieties bred by Clark, which include Magnum Bonum and Ninetyfold. Epicure is a cross between Magnum Bonum and Early Regent. It is widely regarded as one of the finest flavoured of first earlies. It has a floury texture that makes it quite versatile in the kitchen, but is not the most attractive, having a somewhat irregular lumpy shape, with beige skin, and deep set eyes. One could imagine that it might not be well received by the supermarkets, with their misplaced concern for regularity and shapeliness. Steamed until tender, Epicure potatoes develop a delicious buttery texture and wonderful flavour.
Although Clark hailed from the Christchurch area of Dorset, some ten miles or so from our own kitchen garden, Epicure potatoes are also known as ‘Ayrshires’. They show unusually good recovery from frost damage, making them ideal for a first outdoor planting, especially in northerly counties, hence their traditional association with Ayrshire, an area known for the production of early potatoes.
I plant our first crop of potatoes in 15 litre pots. For this purpose, Sharpe’s Express or Duke of York are ideally suited in our experience. Both are old varieties with excellent culinary properties. Their smaller and more regular oval tubers seem ideal for growing in relatively small pots. I am not certain whether Epicure would fare quite so well under such culture, but is certainly excellent for an outdoor planting early in the season. This gives the larger and more round tubers space to develop properly.
There are many interesting potatoes to explore and I would thoroughly recommend departing from the commonplace and trying a wider range whilst they are still available. Some are known for their striking appearance – such as the inappropriately named Salad Blue, which is not at all suited to the salad, being of a particularly floury texture, but having remarkable purplish blue skin and flesh. Others are known for their great flavours and textures. Epicure, which is admittedly not the most attractive of potatoes, is in this category and is well worth trying in my opinion, arguably living up to its name. I hope that the seed potatoes for these old sorts continue to be made available; they are much more than just of historical interest, although that alone makes them worthy of some cultivation.