Food writer, historian and host of the Borough Market Cookbook Club Angela Clutton celebrates the various varieties of British potatoes and offers her expert guidance on cooking with them to make the most of their wonderful diversity of flavour, texture, shape and colour. This month: maincrop
Name your top, say, five comfort foods and I am willing to put a bet on there being a potato dish on that list somewhere. I’ll wager even more that your choice would be somewhere in the roast potato / mashed potato / baked potato line of things. Am I right? If yes, then read on. Because all of those things are best made with autumn and winter’s maincrop potatoes and that is what this is all about. (On the off-chance I was wrong, then you should definitely read on because I am worried you may be missing out on some of the greatest, most pleasurable dishes of life.)
Maincrop varieties begin to appear in late August when the new potatoes are over, begging the question: if a maincrop potato isn’t a ‘new’ potato, then does that mean it is an old one? As autumn and winter goes on, it may be—and that is just fine. I have written previously in this series that new potatoes are at their best and tastiest when freshest out of the ground; maincrop potatoes can happily be stored in the dark for weeks or even months after harvesting.
They come in a wonderful diversity of potato flavours, textures, shapes and colours. Although that is hardly obvious going by the mere handful (if that) of varieties that are generally available, and most consumers are familiar with. There is not much sadder in potato terms than those bags of nondescript ‘white potatoes’ which give the shopper and cook no idea on what they actually are, thus perpetuating the impression of potatoes being so very ordinary and interchangeable. That should be slightly heart-breaking for a nation with a proud potato-farming heritage.
The modern palate
Happily, there have been in recent years more varieties of potatoes coming through, away from the mainstream sources of supply. Some of them are heritage varieties, some are new strains that are being bred to suit the modern palate. It will be their distinctions of texture that determine which to buy and what to do with them.
Broadly speaking it all boils down (pun possibly intended) to whether your maincrop spud is ‘waxy’ or ‘floury’. The waxy ones have a high water content, which gives them the waxy feel. They keep their shape well when cooked. The floury ones have lower water content, therefore a drier texture. You will find them called ‘floury’ or ‘starchy’ but rarely fluffy, which is how I would best describe their texture after cooking and what makes them perfect for so many of the iconic dishes we love so much.
It is their fluffy texture which means they absorb and embrace other flavours so well, and possibly the flavours of fats best of all. Much is made of what is the best fat to choose for roasting potatoes in. Goose fat is often the modern winner in that debate. Beef or pork dripping both works gorgeously too. I am tempted to think a crackingly good roastie is as much—or maybe more—about the choice of potato. The floury types will deliver fluffy insides and crisp outsides, which has to be all any of us can ask a roast potato to be.
Superbly smooth mash
Floury potatoes make superbly smooth mash. Butter, cream or milk, and plenty of salt and pepper are hard to beat for mashing purposes but one of the beauties of mash is there are so many variations that can be drawn upon, depending on what you are serving it with. It could be as simple as adding a few gratings of nutmeg. You could mix in some steamed cabbage or kale for Irish colcannon or mash the potatoes with chunks of swede for the clapshot, the traditional Scottish accompaniment to haggis.
Chopped herbs, grated horseradish or mustard also make fine additions, as does a yolk if a firmer mash is what you are after. Butter can be swapped for dripping, or choose olive oil and head your mash in the direction of the Greek skordalia of mashed potatoes with raw garlic, olive oil, and a little white wine vinegar. The possibilities may well be endless, and they will certainly be delicious.
Floury maincrop potatoes also make the best baked jacket potatoes. I know—sometimes we all have to cook one quickly in the microwave. It gains us time, but we lose the crispy skin contrasting with the fluffy insides that oven-baking these floury potatoes gives and was so loved by the Victorians that baked potatoes became their ultimate street-food, with 60 million of them sold in London each year at halfpenny each. (They doubled as hand-warmers for the poor who’d keep the hot potatoes in their pockets for just as long as they could stave off tucking into them.)
Kerr’s pink or arran victory
If all this talk of floury maincrop potatoes has got you keen to go and get some to cook, you can’t really go wrong with the classic king edward variety. Introduced in 1902 and named for the new king’s coronation, it is truly the monarch of British maincrop potatoes and its ubiquity need not mean you miss out on its deep, mellow flavour if it has been grown and stored with care. Embrace the king edward, yes, but look out, too, for others such as rooster, kerr’s pink or arran victory.
These varieties and others are exciting modern chefs so much that increasingly many are naming them on menus, rather than ‘just’ saying potatoes. I accept they are never going to get the fanfare welcome of spring and summer’s new potatoes, given that the autumn return to market of the maincrop potatoes also heralds the start of our colder weather and dark mornings. But maybe it is all a question of how we look at it. Because if it means more mash, then I’m in. Aren’t you?