Eating In: Humble pie

Few ingredients reward your efforts as generously as the potato, says Michael Bateman. And Lindsey Bareham's pie has to be one of the best ways of eating it
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The Independent Culture
IS THE JERSEY the ultimate potato? Last week the new season's outdoor potatoes were launched on the UK market, the first of some 47,000 tons that will arrive from Jersey over the next eight weeks. Since the emergence of other unusual varieties, such as black potatoes (pommes de Madagascar or negresses which are, in fact, purple), pink fir apples and rattes, the waxy salad potato, the Jersey can no longer claim to be the unique potato that it has been. But these creamy yellow, kidney-shaped potatoes do continue to be the most highly-prized of the tuber family, their skins so delicate that you can rub them away with your thumb.

Of course, not everyone loves a Jersey. Some find its flavour too earthy and its texture too slippery. I can't agree. Properly cooked (for 10 minutes after the water comes to the boil), they will taste nutty, like almonds, their texture slightly waxy. Even without butter they taste buttery. But add a dab of Beurre d'Isigny (from a French coastal town 100 miles to the east of Jersey) and a pinch of Malden salt, and a bowl of Jerseys is an irresistible treat.

The Jersey Royal Fluke, to give it its full title, is a remarkable potato which owes its name to a fluke of breeding. In the 1880s a local farmer, Hugh de la Haye, cut a seed potato into 16 pieces to sprout and found that they grew into shapes quite unlike the parent.

The Channel Islands, being the southernmost point in the British Isles, have a higher average temperature than the mainland, but the weather there is by no means balmy and it requires a feat of husbandry to nurse early crops and protect them from the biting winter winds. These days the plants are pegged down under miles of shiny, perforated polythene wrapping, creating the appearance of ski-slopes.

Turning adversity to advantage, the islanders evade the high cost of importing commercial manures from the mainland by using the thick, green, slimy seaweed which covers the rocks at low tide. They spread it on the land, where it acts first as a mulch, protecting plants against wind and cold and suppressing weeds; and then, when it has rotted down, as a fertiliser rich in nutrients.

The rest of the story is one of determined marketing. For these premium potatoes fetch anything from pounds 1.50 a pound upwards.

We eat fewer potatoes these days ("Dig for Britain", the civvy slogan of the last war, meant "Dig Potatoes") but we've become a good deal more sophisticated and demanding. This is in part due to Lindsey Bareham's book, In Praise of the Potato.

Much has happened since she wrote it 10 years ago. Instead of simply choosing between reds or whites, most people now know the differences between Desiree or Romana (red) and Maris Piper, Cara and King Edward (the main whites). We demand varieties specifically earmarked for baking or roasting, for boiling or mashing, for chips and for salads (floury potatoes are best for chips and mashing; waxy ones for boiling and dishes where they need to hold their shape).

Lindsey Bareham has experimented with every sort, though she confesses to a "volte-face": "I've come round to realising that the way a potato is grown can be as important as the variety. Freshly-dug, organically-grown potatoes are the best for flavour." Unfortunately, most of the potatoes that end up on our plates these days tend to be bland and tasteless, probably due to methods of agriculture: the use of sandy soil for optimum yields, and the over-watering and force-feeding of crops with artificial fertilisers to speed growth.

But how you cook them is important, too. Despite its humble standing, few ingredients reward your efforts as generously as a spud. Lindsey likes to boil them in their skins to retain flavour - essential if they are small. You don't need asbestos fingers to peel them, she says, if you plunge them into cold water for 30 seconds. This forces their volcanic heat back into the centre briefly, enabling you to run the blade of a short, sharp knife through the taut skin from top to bottom for easier peeling.

Lindsey has her own way of roasting potatoes. Take hot, cooked potatoes and rough them up to make them crumbly. Season them and put in an oiled oven dish, dribbling more oil on top. Roast for at least 40 minutes in a hot oven (400F/200C/Gas 6) until they are crisp on top and succulent inside.

Another of her favourites is a mini-souffle potato "pancake", inspired by a visit to the renowned Georges Blanc at La Mere Blanc, in Vonnas, Bourg-en-Bresse. At home, you can scale down the recipe below (serves four to six) to accommodate any left-over mashed potato. They are simple, quick and delicious. A sophisticated version of mash, and great with smoked salmon or crispy bacon.

Boil 1kg (2lb 4oz) potatoes, peel and mash with 100ml (312fl oz) milk. When cool, mix in 100g (4oz) plain flour, three egg yolks, three tablespoons thick cream, and season with salt and pepper. Whisk three egg whites, and fold in gently.

Heat a knob of butter in a non-stick pan and drop in three quarters of a tablespoon of the mixture, cooking for a few minutes on each side. Check for flavour and consistency, adding more milk if necessary. Then cook them in batches (four or five in the pan at the same time), keeping them warm in the oven. The batter can be made in advance and kept in the fridge. Return it to room temperature before using.

Lindsey Bareham's `In Praise of the Potato' (Penguin pounds 7.99) is available to Independent on Sunday readers for the special price of pounds 5.99 including p&p. Send credit card details or a cheque or postal order made out to Penguin Books Ltd: Penguin Direct, Bath Road, Harmondsworth, UB7 ODA. Please allow 28 days for delivery. Offer, to UK residents only, closes 30 April

POTATO PITHIVIER

This is Lindsey Bareham's idea of the ultimate potato dish, a pie which has everything. It looks good and it tastes fantastic. It's lovely eaten hot as a dinner dish, warm for lunch, or cold for a picnic.

Serves 6-8

600ml/1 pint double cream or half double cream and half full-cream milk

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1kg/2lb 8oz boiling potatoes

2 garlic cloves

12 teaspoon grated nutmeg

350g/14oz ready-rolled puff pastry

knob of butter or 1 tablespoon oil

salt and freshly milled black pepper

1 egg whisked with 2 tablespoons milk (egg wash)

Place the cream or cream and milk in a large saucepan - later it will also hold the potatoes - with the bay leaf and thyme. Season with salt and black pepper. Set over a high heat and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes then turn off the heat and cover the pan.

Peel and slice the potatoes very thinly. Then rinse and drain. Peel the garlic and chop very finely. Bring the cream back to the boil and add the potatoes and garlic. Stir thoroughly and bring back to the boil. Cook for 10 minutes.

Thinly roll out two-thirds of the pastry and use it to line a well-buttered/oiled 25.5cm- (1112in-) diameter, 5cm- (2in-) deep metal pie dish, leaving plenty drooping over the edge. Season again, adding the nutmeg. Roll out the remaining pastry and cut it to make a generous-sized top. Pour the potato and cream mixture into the pie crust and fold the edges over, nipping and tucking to prevent leakages - this is very important. Use a pastry brush to paint the pastry flaps with egg wash, then fit the lid into place. Paint the lid with the rest of the egg wash. Use a small sharp knife to etch a pattern into the pastry. I made a ring around the middle of the pie and carved triangles radiating out of a pin-prick hole at the pie's centre.

Pre-heat the oven to 500F/250C/ Gas 9 and place a pastry sheet in the middle. Put the pie on the hot pastry sheet and cook for 10 minutes. Lower the temperature to 325F/160C/Gas 3 and bake for a further 45 minutes.

Remove the pie from the oven and run a knife around the inside edge of the dish. Cover it with a large plate and invert the pie. Repeat with a second plate.

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