IT'S NATIONAL Potato Day next Sunday, and this is more of a cause for celebration than you may think. The potato might not rank among the Global Big Three (rice, wheat and maize) but it is firmly rooted in the British food culture. In consuming over 10 billion pounds a year we easily out-eat our continental neighbours.
And we don't just eat chips. We love them boiled, mashed, roasted and baked. And of course, most of us know there's a right variety for each job.
For mash, roast, baked potatoes and chips we use the more floury types: Maris Piper, King Edward or the red Desiree (though the last isn't good for mashing). Dense potatoes such as Maris Peer or Charlotte are best for salads or creamy baked dishes.
All the same, apart from a few exceptions which have crept on to the market - the sweet, nutty Ratte and knobbly Pink Fir Apples - we tend to rely on a couple of dozen workhorses. One of the reasons for this is that the number of varieties grown in the UK has been diminishing, partly due to regulations imposed by the EU, who find the proliferation of all seed crops confusing and untidy.
It was for this reason that National Potato Day was created seven years ago by the Henry Doubleday Research Association Organic Enterprises, at Ryton. "Over 6,000 vegetable seeds have been wiped out by EU policies," they maintain. "The EC creates a list of approved seeds and if you want to use seeds commercially which are not on the list you have to pay to have them tested. These payments are prohibitive to small nurserymen, so many varieties fall by the wayside."
The HDRA decided to save what they could and have gradually built up a Heritage Seed Library, getting round EU restrictions not by selling them but by giving them away to members of the library.
You can't buy a packet of potato seed but you can buy a seed potato at HDRA on Potato Day. Some time this week five tons of them will be trucked down from Fyfe in Scotland, embracing a spread of 120 varieties, both famous and rare. The public will be able to buy them in small units, even singly, to plant at home.
That the EU seeks to limit varieties grown commercially is understandable, but the consumer is the eventual loser because the big growers are more concerned with high yields than flavour. In the past 50 years we've seen yields grow from eight tons an acre to 30 tons an acre. More importantly, growers go for potatoes with high disease-resistance. The potato is vulnerable to a plague of diseases: eelworm, potato scab, blackleg, tobacco rattle virus and most deadly of all, Phytophthora infestans, the blight that destroyed the Irish potato crop in successive years in the 1840s, when over 1 million starved to death.
While it's true that the worst of modern potatoes are watery and tasteless (the highest-yielding varieties like Estima are those which take up a lot of water) the British potato has been a glorious success story, a credit to our breeders at research stations. Think of all the Pentland varieties (Crown, Dell, Hawk, Ivory, Javelin, Marble, Squire), the Maris (Piper, Peer, Bard) and Arran (Comet, Consul, Pilot, Victory). All the more reason to support the HDRA who want to keep the best alive.
A catalogue of the varieties available on the day, compiled by Alan Romans, can be obtained for pounds 1.30 (incl p&p) from Organic Enterprises, HDRA, Ryton Organic Gardens, Coventry, CV8 3LG. Tel: 024 7630 3517
Belle de Fontenay Yellow, smooth, waxy: the classic French salad potato.
Bintje Rather starchy all-rounder of Dutch origin. Commonly used for frozen chips and other processed potato products.
Cara Mild-flavoured all-rounder. A disease-resistant heavy cropper: the growers' favourite.
Carlingford Tasty, waxy potato, gaining in popularity. Eaten as a boiled new potato.
Catriona Popular Scottish variety, fluffy texture, with dramatic purple colouring around the eyes. …