Magazine article The Spectator

Food: Imperative Cooking: Useless Potatoes and Tomatoes

Magazine article The Spectator

Food: Imperative Cooking: Useless Potatoes and Tomatoes

Article excerpt

BEFORE Easter England was full of Egyptians. They are cheerful enough, I suppose, and pleasant enough to look at with their light brown, earthy skins, but they are of no use to anyone. Who invites them all I can't say. They are good for nothing. And they have no taste at all. Then come Jersey Royals. They do have some taste but at silly prices. The first Cypriots are also here. They have been getting better. Finally there will be the English earlies. But however much or little taste all of these have, there is not one with a waxy texture. And waxy potatoes are indispensable for salads and for those old French dishes such as andouillette which were always accompanied by a solitary pomme vapeur.

Elizabeth David complained about the lack of waxy potatoes some 40 years ago. Things have changed since then but not for the better. Actually the change is rather interesting and a good example of what has happened to food in England more generally. When she wrote, the greengrocer shops offered two potatoes, Whites and King Edwards. Both were useless for our purposes. Now the supermarkets offer a bewildering variety. There are Cara, Wiljas, all sorts of Pilots, Charlottes, lots of Pentlands - all useless. By the way, what silly names they all have. And indeed that is the problem. As so often with food in cool, modern, go-ahead Britain, it is a variety of the same thing. The whole idea of variety is not just to have different names but different tastes and textures for different dishes.

Already I can hear rumblings as some disgruntled fan of one of the silly names starts bleating, `Has this Anderson never tried Pink Fir Apples?' Indeed he has and the fact that someone thinks they are waxy is further proof of the problem. Waxy does not mean merely that the potato does not crumble, it refers to taste as well. No, PFAs will not do. And for some bizarre reason neither will the Rattes which are sold here. I've tried them bought in shops and planted them myself.

The persistent, obstinate refusal of the shops to sell and the customers to buy and cook waxy potatoes illustrates perfectly the stupidity of the claim that British food is now top-class: you can't even buy a good potato, or a good 'Spanish' onion. These have actually got worse. There is no equivalent of French Lezignan onions, not even something approaching the American Vidalias. …

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