Jersey Royals, Jersey
The Jersey Royal is one of this country’s most delicious products, and it even has a rather delightful story behind it. More discerning eaters look forward to the short season for this particular spud, but for too many British shoppers a potato is a potato is a potato.
Some of us never even bother to buy new potatoes, missing out on the special flavours they contain beneath their thin skins. And even those who recognize that new potatoes are worth buying may not bother to look at anything beyond price, opting for cheap imports from Egypt, Cyprus or Israel. Even setting aside the food miles issue, the longer a potato has been in transit, the less flavoursome it will be, losing sweetness as sugars turn to starch, so it makes culinary sense to buy as locally as possible.
Hugh de la Haye was the Jersey farmer who, in Victorian times, developed the variety at first called The Jersey Royal Fluke because of the chance behind its appearance. It is said that de la Haye spotted a couple of huge potatoes on a market stall, and perhaps thinking more of big baking spuds than delicate flavour he bought them, and finding one had 15 eyes he cut it into 15 chunks with an eye apiece and planted each on one of his sloping fields – côtils as they are known there. When the resulting crop was harvested it yielded nothing unusual, no giants, except for one plant, where the potatoes were small, kidney shaped, thin skinned, and as it turned out when they were cooked, delicious.
These days doubtless de la Haye would have patented the variety and earned a fortune. Instead he developed it and passed it to other farmers, never becoming rich. Jersey’s farmers did, however, eventually recognize the boon he had given them, and presented him with a purse of gold.
The mild climate in Jersey means that the Jersey Royal (the Fluke bit got dropped long ago) can be planted outdoors in January in fields fertilised with seaweed, and harvested from April to June, all too short a date as the poet said. But the very compression of that season somehow makes the Jersey Royal all the sweeter, like youth.
Eat them the day you buy them. Preferably buy them with dirt still clinging to the papery skins; they’ll be cheaper and fresher. Clean the soil and skin off, and drop them into a big pan of ready boiling water. Salted water or unsalted? I am for the latter, Jersey Royal producers tend to recommend a compromise of light salting, with a sprig of mint in the pot too.
The cooked spuds are worth eating on their own as a separate dish, with good Jersey butter, and some flaked sea salt to sprinkle on, nothing else. Waxy is the word given for their texture, but this seems inadequate, inappropriate even: they hold their shape in the most toothsome fashion, and are superbly sweet.