Why Britain should dig the potato

Its harvest was once celebrated, and kept schoolchildren busy during half-term. But for a new generation, potatoes are losing out to pasta. Is it time we got back to our roots?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

My son will not remember it as I do. The rasp of the spade as it cut through the clay.

The grunt of exertion as my father's heavy shoe hit down on the lug and the blade bit into the claggy soil and he lifted and turned it. Or later in the year – this time of year – came the easier movement of the garden fork as the tines brushed aside the withered foliage and pushed through the friable worked soil to lift the potatoes.

It was something I did not do in his stead when my father had gone. My son has never seen Britain's great staple food emerge from the crumbly loam. For his generation, potatoes come washed and bagged from the supermarket.

His eyebrows rose the first time he visited the farm shop next door to his Grandma's and found that this king of vegetables came covered in organic black soil. But at least he knew from Grandma's cooking that these potatoes tasted better than the supermarket variety. Ours is a generation which has forgotten what a range of tastes potatoes can encompass.

That farm shop, Manic Organic, is a few doors down the road from where the Cropper Brothers, John and Robin, farm at Aughton on the flat loamy Lancashire plain outside Ormskirk. On Mill End Farm they will lift 80 per cent of their 350-acre potato crop this month. They do this every October, which is traditionally why schools have their autumn half-term holiday at this time of year.

In the old days, when potato-lifting was labour-intensive, children formed an important part of the workforce. "It was always regarded as the potato-picking holiday," recalls Robin. "When I was a boy, 40 years ago, large numbers of schoolchildren between the ages of 14 and 16 came to help."

The story of the potato is one of the stories of our nation's history. Despite such popular expressions as "as British as fish and chips", the potato is, of course, an immigrant to these shores. For thousands of years, Britons survived on bread and ale.

Though the potato was probably first domesticated in Peru or Chile more than 4,000 years ago, it was brought to Europe only after the Spanish adventurer Pizarro destroyed the Inca empire and brought back its staple carbohydrate as part of his plunder. The story goes that it was brought to England by Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Francis Drake in the 1580s along with other booty plundered from Spanish ships by British privateers. Certainly, the English herbalist John Gerard was growing potatoes in London by 1597. Once it was discovered that potatoes yielded more than twice the calories per acre than grain did – and was safer from pillage by marauding armies – the new crop became quickly established across Europe.

There was a little resistance. France was seized with a rumour that potatoes caused leprosy. In Scotland, devout Presbyterians took against them because they weren't mentioned in the Bible. Peasants in Russia pronounced them the devil's apples, and in the American colonies some branded them the spoor of witches. But landowners and government officials across the continent promoted the rapid conversion of fallow land into potato plots. In Prussia, the king threatened to cut off the noses and ears of peasants who refused to plant them.

With the displacement of large populations from the countryside in the 18th and 19th centuries, the potato – cheap, nutritious and easy to grow in small plots of land – became the fuel for Britain's Industrial Revolution. Countries such as Ireland had already become seriously dependent upon growing and eating large quantities of potatoes – a reliance which came to have terrible consequences in 1845 when a blight attacked the potato crop and caused the devastating famine that prompted massive emigration, shifting the demography of Britain and many other countries around the world. The potato is still central to Irish culinary culture: I once ate a meal in a grand country-house hotel in the West of Ireland where five potato dishes were served with the meat: mashed, boiled, roast, chipped and in croquettes.

It is the world's fourth-biggest crop after rice, wheat, and maize. Even China is switching; it now grows more potatoes than anywhere else. The North-west of England was the first place in mainland Britain to grow potatoes. The Cropper family of Aughton have been growing them at least since Robin Cropper's great-grandfather's time. Yet the business has changed radically since then.

"My great grandfather had just 70 acres and 17 full-time staff," Robin says. The potatoes were lifted by a horse-drawn chain and dropped to the floor, where they were picked up by hand and put into sacks. "Today we farm 1,300 acres of our own land, and more of other farmers'."

They now have four full-time staff and four part-timers. The harvester scoops the potatoes, sifts out the soil (the stones are separated earlier, at planting time) and then the potatoes are moved by a hydraulic elevator into a trailer. The elevator can be adjusted by a skilful driver so that the potatoes never drop more than a foot, which avoids bruising. Back in the yard, they are graded and stored, either in bulk, which is cheaper, or in boxes, which is better. They aren't washed; they store better in their soil. Mature potatoes can be kept for as long as six months in a cool, dark, humid place. Exposure to light causes them to turn green.

"We specialise in Maris Pipers for chip shops," says Robin. "It's a high-quality potato which is low in sugars and has a high dry matter so it makes the best chips. They are delivered to the chip shops in the soil and not washed at all, just peeled."

But not everything in the potato field is rosy. Average potato yields doubled from 1960 to 1990 but growth has been slower since. Climate change has been in evidence over the past four decades, with an average rise of 1.5C and around 200 hours more sunshine a year. Rainfall has been more variable and these trends are accelerating.

"Potatoes need steady rain and sunshine in the growing period," says Robin. "They don't like prolonged dry periods or deluges. This year has been a difficult one, with a very dry spell early in the year, and a very wet one up to October." A warming climate gives a longer growing season and higher growth rates but it also encourages pests and diseases. "We have more resistant varieties now, but blight is still a problem in a year of high humidity."

There is another problem. A new generation seems increasingly to prefer pasta to potatoes. Families in Britain have eaten 833 million fewer meals featuring potatoes since 2001 – a fall of 3.1 per cent – while rice is up 33 per cent and pasta by 21 per cent.

"Pasta is seen as faster and healthier," laments Robin Cropper. "There's a popular misconception that potatoes are fattening, but they're not." There are only 100 calories in a medium (150g) potato which has no fat, and contains fibre and a dose of vitamins – C, B1 and B6. "And they need not take a long time to cook. For mash, you can cut them in small pieces which considerably reduces the cooking time. With a deep-fat fryer, chips take just 12 minutes. Boiled in their skins, straight from the bag, they are very nutritious."

He should know. He is a single father with three kids yet he manages to cook potatoes every day. "My favourite is dauphinoise, which takes 10 minutes to prepare and then needs 40 minutes in the oven. But three times a week I do chips, which I twice fry to get them crisp on the outside and fluffy on the in."

Sounds complicated? "Not at all: I just flash them in the fryer for four minutes at 180 degrees and then take them out till the oil gets back to 180. Then I cook them for another eight minutes. I use a healthy oil, rapeseed. Very easy, with no additives."

The potato, he insists, is the food of the future. "It's very environmentally sound. Most potatoes are locally grown; 70 per cent of ours are eaten within a 25-mile radius of the farm." And 60 per cent of Britain's potatoes are eaten fresh.

Having survived the Government's bonfire of the quangoes, the British Potato Council is to launch a fightback with, among other strategies, a television celebrity chef MasterSpud 2011 competition. Perhaps it could supply a load of potatoes to put round the bottom of the bonfire for baking ...

As for reconnecting my son with the soil, perhaps it's time to get an allotment.

How to cook the perfect...

Jacket Potatoes

Preparation time: 5 mins

Cooking time: 75 mins

Serves: 1 large (225g/8oz) potato per person

Oven: 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6

Best varieties: Estima, Marfona

Scrub your potatoes clean. Rub a tiny drop of oil into the skins and sprinkle salt around them on a baking tray (the salt draws out the moisture and makes them extra crispy) or pat a bit on to the skins. Put them in the oven.

After an hour, check to see if they're cooked. A medium potato will be ready within an hour and a half. When cooked, split them open and serve with butter mashed. If cooking an ovenful of potatoes, increase the temperature to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7. Use metal skewers or baking prongs pushed through the potatoes to reduce the cooking time by up to a quarter.

To microwave baked potatoes

Scrub the potatoes clean, then dry and prick each one several times with a fork. Cook each potato (225g/8oz) for six minutes on full power (800W), turning halfway through cooking.

Allow to stand for 1-2 minutes before serving.

Mashed Potato

Preparation time: 5 mins

Cooking time: 20 mins

Serves: 2-4

Best varieties: Nadine, Rooster, Saxon, Wilja

Ingredients

700g (1lb 9oz) floury potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

150 ml (14pt) milk

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

Place potatoes in a pan with just enough water to cover them. Bring to the boil, then cover with a lid and simmer for 20 minutes or until tender. Drain. Bring the milk to the boil, then pour the milk over the potatoes and mash until smooth*. Season to taste and serve immediately.

Just a few simple ingredients can transform classic mashed potato. Try a couple of ounces of grated cheese, or soured cream. Or add a teaspoon or two of horseradish sauce to the mash just before serving with British beef. For other alternatives, try stirring in 1-2 teaspoons of pesto or mustard per person.

Add caramelised onions to a bowl of mash to serve with beef casserole, or mix in chopped fresh herbs such as oregano or dill, which are delicious with chicken or fish. Try basil or thyme if you're serving the mash with a tomato-based dish

* A potato ricer is a useful kitchen tool if you want a really smooth mash

Roast Potatoes

Preparation time: 15 mins

Cooking time: 45 mins

Serves: Use 175g (6oz) potatoes per person

Oven: 200°C/425°F/Gas mark 6.

Best varieties: Desiree , King Edward , Maris Piper

Peel the potatoes and cut into large, even-sized chunks. Rinse under cold running water to remove excess starch. Par boil the potatoes in lightly salted boiling water for 10 minutes. Drain them and coat in oil or fat of your choice. Use 1 tbspn fat for each 450g (1lb) of potatoes. Roast in a preheated oven for approximately 45 minutes, turning twice. Serve immediately

Putting the potatoes into hot oil or fat means they soak up less fat and will crisp up better. Potatoes will absorb the flavour of the oil or fat used, so choose accordingly: dripping or lard, rendered goose or duck fat, corn oil, olive oil or sunflower oil are all suitable.

Tips from www.lovepotatoes.co.uk/. If you want more ideas on how to use potatoes, their site has a huge selection of recipes

What's in a potato?

1 medium potato (148g, without butter, fat, seasoning or other ingredients) contains:

* Calories: 100

* Calories from Fat: 0

* Total Fat: 0g

* Saturated Fat: 0g

* Cholesterol: 0mg

* Sodium: 0mg

* Carbohydrate: 26g, 9% of daily intake

* Dietary Fibre: 3g, 12% of daily intake

* Sugars: 3g

* Protein: 4g

* Vitamin: 0% of daily intake

* Vitamin C: 45% of daily intake

* Calcium: 2% of daily intake

* Iron: 6% of daily intake

% = Daily value, based on a 2,000-calorie diet

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