Making the most of the new Jerseys and other potatoes
No matter that new potatoes are available from Christmas through autumn, the sight in the greengrocer of the first sack of Jersey Royals, marginally larger than a Malteser, comes like manna from heaven. Despite their silly price-tag, the acquisition of a large bag-full is essential.

I had their first use carefully plotted this year: after scraping off the papery skins under running water, I boiled and then crowned them with a knob of butter, a dollop of creme fraiche and a whole jar of salmon keta roe louchely emptied on top. That pushed the price up, but the cost is already sliding down as we helter-skelter into the British season for new potatoes, pulled from the ground while the tops are still green and the skins are tender.

I love the anorak-speak of delving into potato varieties: appreciation of depth of eyes and colour of skin - be it white, russet, pink or blue - the colour and texture of the flesh, shape of the tuber and discoloration on cooking. Don't let anyone tell you the attraction isn't physical.

Depending slightly on who you talk to, there should be no difference in quality between potatoes pulled in April and those in November - the price being dictated more by how shy they are of the weather than a direct reflection of how good they are to eat.

Alan Wilson is the author of The Story of the Potato, a wonderful booklet that details the history and varieties of potatoes, with lovingly sketched colour portraits. And he is responsible for potatoes at Waitrose. Wilson's favourite is the Duke of York, but only when harvested at the correct time: "If you have it in the ground for too long," he says, "it disintegrates in the pan and the skin sets."

"The first earlies are the unique bunch," says Wilson. Compared to second earlies and main-crops, they are rather flighty and delicate, and they don't keep. Waitrose, which is especially potato-conscious, will have a sequence of first earlies during the summer, kicking off with Jersey Royals. Towards May-June, the store will move on to Maris Bard, Carlingford, Duke of York, and, for the first time, Sharpes Express.

Wilson is keen to reintroduce old and rare varieties, but getting them out of a collection and back into cultivation is a lengthy and costly procedure. But, he says, "if a retailer is committed to it, it's a process of time. Once it's back, it's back forever."

But buying potatoes is a problem for the consumer. It's all very well if you know a great deal about the subject, but rarely is there enough information at hand in your local greengrocer or supermarket for you to work out what you're buying. I would urge you to seek out organic potatoes wherever possible which won't have been unnaturally forced.

"It's a lottery," says gardening expert Lynda Brown. And her advice is to buy a small quantity and taste them, and if they're good, then go back. As she so rightly says, "The thrill is worth the chase."

Patates bastisi, serves 4

This recipe (shown over) comes from Classic Turkish Cookery by Ghillie and Jonathan Basan (Tauris Parke pounds 19.95). The original calls for a spice called kirmizi biber, made with mild chilli peppers, and you may be able to find it in a Middle Eastern or Italian deli. I have suggested the substitute of paprika and cayenne.

700g/l12lb new potatoes, scrubbed or peeled, and quartered if necessary

2 onions, halved and diced

2 tbsp olive oil

6 cloves of garlic, crushed with salt

1 tsp cumin seeds

l tbsp wine vinegar

2 tbsp black olives, stoned

1 tsp sugar

4 tomatoes, skinned and roughly chopped

2 tsp dried oregano

I tbsp chopped fresh parsley

14 tsp each sweet paprika and cayenne pepper


2 tbsp hazelnuts, chopped

To serve: Greek yoghurt

Heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Fry the potatoes and onions in a shallow pan until they take on a little colour. Stir in the garlic and cumin seeds and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes. Stir in the vinegar, olives and sugar. Add the tomatoes, oregano, parsley, paprika and cayenne pepper. Season with salt. Spoon the mixture into a shallow oven-proof dish and spread it out evenly. Sprinkle with the hazelnuts and place in the oven for about 30 minutes, stirring halfway through, until the potatoes are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed. If they are not quite cooked, then cover with foil, turn the oven down and give them a bit longer. Serve hot or cold with yoghurt.

Herbed Potato Salad, serves 4

There are lots of herbs in this, the idea being that they marinate gently overnight and infuse with their scent.

700g/112lb new potatoes, scrubbed or peeled

5 tbsp dry vermouth

9 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

squeeze of lemon juice

sea salt, black pepper

5 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley, chives, chervil and dill

3 spring onions, trimmed and sliced

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Cut all the potatoes into the same size and boil until tender. Reduce the vermouth in a small saucepan by half.

Slice the hot potatoes and dress with the oil, vermouth, lemon juice and seasoning. Add the herbs and spring onions. Once cool, cover with cling-film and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Bring back to room temperature before serving.

New Potatoes with Roquefort and Creme Fraiche, serves 4

A quick supper dish for when you've acquired a particularly special haul of new potatoes and you feel like indulging .

800g/1lb 9oz new potatoes, scrubbed or peeled

110g/4oz creme fraiche

150g/5oz Roquefort, crumbled


snipped chives

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, cut the potatoes into the same size if necessary and cook them until tender. Drain. Heat the creme fraiche gently in a small saucepan. Add the cheese and season with a dash of Tabasco. Toss with the potatoes and serve scattered with chives. It's important that the cheese doesn't melt into the cream but just warms through and holds its shape - so it's a case of throwing it all together quickly

`The Story of the Potato', by Alan Wilson, is available by mail order (01932 820958), pounds 14.95