It is that time of year again. If you got off to a good start with your potato planting this spring, you should now have new potatoes waiting to be dug up and savoured. Do you think it worthwhile to grow earlies for a treat in June or do you think it a waste of time and space, maybe because you think new potatoes are not very special to eat?
I was reminded of the controversy over new potatoes after reading bits in the RHS journal THE GARDEN. One article was all about how the farmers of Jersey produce their winter/spring crops of Jersey Royals. A letter from a reader then responded and said that Jersey Royals no longer have a special flavour and challenged the growers to tell her why.
This opens a can of worms. Let's get one thing straight first. New potatoes as sold in the supermarkets are usually not that new. They could be several months old and have been cold stored and maybe treated with CIPC to stop sprouting. The usual method is to grow an early variety until the little potatoes are the required size then to kill off the foliage with herbicide and leave the tubers to thicken their skins for 3 weeks before harvest. These are not new potatoes and will not taste like new potatoes. At other times, the baby potatoes are graded from a mature crop. The grader can take out the fraction 25 - 35mm and sell these smalls at an inflated price as baby potatoes.
But occasionally you see fresh potatoes with loose, flaky skins in the supermarkets. Now these have been harvested by digging up green plants with a harvester (Greentops). The skins are soft and are partly removed by the machinery. The whole skin can be easily rubbed or scraped off (hence the term 'scrapers' to describe these). If they are boiled or steamed immediately, they could have a really special taste. But often these loose-skinned potatoes don't get eaten for several days or even weeks and may be badly stored and may develop green chlorophyll just under the skin if exposed to light. These are very unlikely to taste special.
Some varieties produce tasty new potatoes and other don't. Is there any truth in this? Most growers agree that variety makes a difference. In the olden days (when I was a boy) Ayrshire potatoes were touted as being super-delicious in June. The variety favoured there was Epicure, a potato that matures to become quite floury. The Irish still like the old variety, British Queen, that is also quite floury. Maris Peer is now a popular variety widely used to produce 'new potatoes' for supermarkets. New varieties are popular for a few years then are superceeded by yet newer ones. Some of the gardener's favourites are still grown in gardens up and down the country (e.g. Sharp's Express and Duke of York etc). Some claim that the old French varieties like Ratte, Belle de Fontenay or BF15 are more tasty that home-bred varieties. I think some blind taste tests are warranted here.
And what about Jersey Royals? Well these are properly named 'International Kidney' and have been grown on the island for a very long time. International Kidney is a maincrop variety that has 'evolved' on Jersey to produce tasty earlies. This evolution is thought to be due to infection with a virus that changes the variety to one with earlier maturity. When the variety is cleaned of its virus, it goes back to being a maincrop. Another fact about Jerseys is that farmers around the coastline that had access to large amounts of seaweed (kelp etc) washed in by strorms naturally used this free fertilizers. This probably yielded a spud with a superior flavour. I hear that few if any growers are still using seaweed as a fertilizer. This alone might be why JRs do not taste as good these days as they used to do.
My recommendations for producing good flavour in earlies are:
Harvest while the potatoes are still small, scrape the skin off and boil/steam as soon as possible.
Let cooked potatoes cool as the flavour is at its best in warm not hot spuds.
Choose a variety known for its flavour. We think that Sarpo variety 'Kifli' is particularly tasty.
Experiment with the soil/compost you use e.g. add seaweed to one plot and keep a control plot without seaweed. And remember, you can plant early varieties from time to time until mid August and still get a useful crop of delicious new potatoes. You can even take a maincrop variety like 'Sarpo Mira' or Sarpo 'Axona' and plant it in July to get proper new potatoes in September/October. Second cropping like this is best when a late-blight resister is used because susceptable varieties can often be blitzed as soon as they emerge from the soil.