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Overview

They’re smashing…. the potato. Versatile, nutritious and delicious. Breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack, there’s always a time for a potato.

Boiling, mashing, roasting, frying, stewing, scalloping and chipping, the potato has to be the most versatile veg. They have a prized place in cuisines all over the world, and are loved in the UK. This versatile tubor appears in all types of catering from home-cooked comfort meals to street food stalls and fine dining restaurants. With so many varieties, ways of preparing and serving options – the potato is a clear choice for celebration.

About

What are potatoes?

Potatoes are very close to being root vegetables, but despite growing underground they are not the roots of the potato plant. Instead they’re tubers the plant grows to store food and water for when the weather gets tough, or even to grow a new plant. They come in a range of sizes depending on which variety it is and when they are harvested. The smallest potatoes are commonly ‘new’, young, potatoes. Potatoes typically have pale to golden yellow, or red to pink skin, with flesh that can be cream, to a deep golden in colour. However, some rare varieties can have purple or blue skin, even almost black, and flesh that can be a deep red, bright pink or purple. Potatoes are part of the nightshade family, and the green, the above-ground part is very bitter.

 

UK potato consumption

The UK are one of the top producers and consumers of potatoes in the world, and despite being the 12th largest producer in the world, demand outstrips supply as we are the 9th largest consumers, with the average Brit eating about 100kg or 220lb of potatoes every year. In England the biggest potato farming counties include Herefordshire and counties on the east coast including Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

The Maris Piper potato, the most popular in the UK, was bred to be resistant to the potato cyst worm. It is a delicious and very versatile potato that was developed on Maris Lane in Cambridge in the 1980s, with the addition of ‘Piper’ being chosen by the breeder’s son.

 

History

The potato is a relatively recent addition to our plates though, only being introduced to Britain in the 1500s from South America, and even then it was a couple of centuries before it was widely adopted. 

In the UK, the potato has been a staple food since the start of the 19th Century, which led to disaster in 1845 when potato blight devastated the crops. Blight spread across Europe, but its effects were felt hardest in the Scottish Highlands and, most tragically, Ireland. It’s estimated that the population of Ireland fell by almost a quarter, with a million people emigrating and a million more dying. Potato blight still exists today, costing British farmers around £60 million a year.

 

potatomix

 

How did the potato get its name, and why are they called spuds?

Potato comes from the Spanish name, patata. Since the Spanish encountered the potato when they met the Incas, you’d think they’d have just taken their name for it. Unfortunately for the Spanish the Inca word was papa, which is what they call the Pope! You wouldn’t want to talk about peeling, boiling and mashing the head of the Catholic Church for dinner, so they took a cue from the word from a Caribbean language for sweet potato, batata. For quite some time it was actually sweet potatoes that were called ‘potatoes’ in English, with regular potatoes being called white potatoes, Irish potatoes or Virginia potatoes. This makes more sense considering that back then potatoes were a lot more knobbly. 

Potatoes are also called spuds, a name dating back at least 150 years. A story has spread around that this came from an anti-potato group called S.P.U.D., the ‘Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet’, but there’s no evidence such a campaign ever existed. Instead ‘spud’ probably just came from the spade used to dig holes when planting potatoes, with the holes themselves first being called ‘spuds’.

Where do potatoes come from?

The potato comes from the Americas. Genetic research found that every potato in the world descends from potatoes cultivated 7,000-10,000 years ago in Peru. This makes it one of the oldest crops in the world.

Potatoes were brought to Britain, and the rest of Europe, in the 1500s through the Columbian Exchange between Europe and the Americas. The Inca Empire relied on potatoes as a staple food, and they introduced them to the Spanish conquistadores. The Incas cooked potatoes by boiling them, mashing them and putting them in stews. They also had a unique method of preserving potatoes. The Incas would leave them out to freeze on cold nights before thawing in the morning, to dry them out. After a few goes the potatoes would be laid out and stamped on, squeezing out the remaining water and removing the skin. These dried potatoes shrank a lot and had a much longer shelf-life, making them perfect for times of food shortage or for warriors on the march. 

How did potatoes become popular in Europe?

The first mention of potatoes in Europe is a delivery receipt to Antwerp in 1567, but they wouldn’t become the staple food we know today for about two hundred years. There’s a lot of strange or conflicting stories about the potato in this time. One story tells of how the potato was introduced to Ireland by Portuguese fishermen, another that they washed ashore from a Spanish shipwreck. Sir Francis Drake, or an employee of Sir Walter Raleigh, are sometimes credited with bringing the potato to England in 1586 or 1588, but there’s not much evidence to go on. Despite this, an impressive statue in a small town in Germany is dedicated to Drake and his introduction of the potato to Europe, which is not only something he definitely didn’t do but also only ended up there because the sculptor couldn’t find anyone else to buy it!

When potatoes were first introduced, Europeans were really not sure what to do with them. One of the earliest scientific descriptions of the vegetable came from the man in charge of the Austrian Emperor’s flower and herb garden. It’s thought potatoes made their way across Europe as gifts between the aristocracy who thought they were curiosities with possible medicinal uses. There are also quite a few stories of these aristocrats deciding to host dinners with this exotic vegetable. Their chefs decided to throw away the ugly tubers and cook the green plant itself, which is both very bitter and poisonous enough to cause an upset stomach. The guests probably put on a polite smile as they forced it down, but it seems like the story got around that the potato was a horrible, poisonous plant.
Anti-potato sentiment was so strong for a time that they were called ‘Devil’s apples’ and were even banned in parts of France in the 1700s. That ban only ended when a soldier captured by the Prussians, Parmentier, came home and told everyone that he’d been made to live on a diet of potatoes while in prison. In Russia the Tsar tried to help starving peasants by sending them carts of potatoes, and they had to be forced to accept them at gunpoint!


This prejudice eventually died down, leading to an explosion in the popularity of the potato from the late 18th to 19th Century. Potatoes are much more efficient than cereals like oats, wheat and barley, requiring less land, less water and less processing. The increased productivity from adopting the potato even contributed to the population boom that powered the Industrial Revolution. 

How should potatoes be stored?

Potatoes will last the longest in a breathable fabric or paper sack, protected from the light, in a cool, dark place - between 5-8°C. In an open cardboard box covered with paper, like old newspaper, works very well too. Putting potatoes in a clear plastic bag under a window, on the other hand, will cause them to expire pretty quickly. It’s important to check each potato for damage if you’re planning to store them for weeks or longer, because without the protective barrier of the skin the potato will rot sooner and possibly spoil the whole batch.

Allowing the moisture to wick away from the potatoes stops them getting soft and soggy. Protecting them from light stops potatoes going green. Making sure potatoes don’t get below 5°C, but still keeping them cool, slows down the process of decay without damaging the potatoes. Potatoes are stimulated to grow eyes, the sprouts, when they’re warm, moist and exposed to sunlight, so this method also stops them forming.

Larger, ‘older’ potatoes can be stored for a very long time in the right conditions, for months even. New potatoes have much thinner skin, so they won’t last as long.

Nutritional benefits of potatoes

Potatoes don’t have the best reputation when it comes to a healthy diet, with the British government not even counting it as one of your five-a-day. This has a lot more to do with how potatoes are eaten than the nutritional content of the potatoes themselves. Potatoes are a good source of vitamins C, B3, B5 and B6, essential minerals like iron and phosphorous, and fibre (with the skin on). In fact, Europeans typically get most of their vitamin C from potatoes. Potatoes known for being high in carbohydrates, but at the same time their high-water content makes them very filling.

Seasonality of potatoes

The seasonality of potatoes depends on what variety is being grown. The first potato of the season is the Jersey Royal, which come into season in March or April and are around to August. Large potatoes like the Maris Piper are usually harvested from July to September and then stored over winter.

Quality

How to select potatoes

Different varieties of potatoes vary in a lot of ways, and some are meant to be knobbly, have darker patches or a lot of indentations. It’s always best to be familiar with the kind of potatoes you’re looking to buy. The general rules though are that fresh, well-handled potatoes are firm to the touch, dry and unwrinkled. They shouldn’t have eyes or any green colouration. Cuts or bruises break the protective barrier of the skin and can cause greying or browning, as well as making the potato go bad faster, so there should be as few as possible. Minor cuts and bruises can just be cut away, especially if the potato is being peeled.

Why potatoes sometimes turn green?

Potatoes become green when they’re exposed to light. This green colour is connected to an increase in the level of solanine in the potato, a naturally occurring poison. This poison will make the potato taste bitter and possibly dangerous to eat, although severe solanine poisoning is very rare.

If a potato has only just started turning green, it may be safe to eat when peeled because the solanine is concentrated under the skin, to the depth of about 3mm. The poison itself isn’t green, unfortunately, and does spread throughout the potato, so just cutting the green bits off doesn’t work after a point. The safest advice is to not eat potatoes that have gone green under the skin.

What are the sprouts coming out of my potatoes?

The small, or with enough time, very big, sprouts that come out of potatoes are called ‘eyes’. Because a potato is a tuber, it’s possible to grow another potato plant from it, and that’s what the eyes are trying to do. Because these eyes use the potato for food to grow they can degrade the potato very quickly. If your potatoes have eyes, you should eat them within a day or two and cut away the affected areas.

Why are my potatoes sweet, or turning grey or black when cooked?

If your potatoes are turning grey or black with cooking, they’ve probably been exposed to too low of a temperature. Below 5°C the starch in the potato starts being converted into sugar, which causes an unusual sweet taste and the strange colour. A similar effect can also happen above 10°C. 

Why are my potatoes wrinkly?

Potatoes are 80% water, so if they’re kept in too dry of an environment they can dry out and shrink, causing the skin to become wrinkled. While potatoes need a certain level of humidity to stay in good condition, they shouldn’t be allowed to become wet, or else they’ll get soggy and rotten. 

How are different varieties of potato created?

From the single variety of potato grown in the Andes thousands of years ago farmers, breeders and scientists have managed to produce hundreds of different varieties. Selective breeding and crossbreeding are the most popular methods, with genetic modification being very rare. 

Selective breeding is the process of identifying individuals with desirable qualities and breeding them together to make the next generation possess more of those qualities. New varieties today are usually produced by crossbreeding, where two varieties are bred together to produce a potato with the best of both. Breeding with wild varieties is particularly useful for making potatoes resistant to certain diseases or thrive in different environments.


The small amount of varieties produced by genetic modification take fragments of DNA from other potatoes, plants or even insects, and insert it into the DNA of a potato. This has been done to produce varieties resistant to disease, bruising or to make them more useful for industrial purposes.

Types of potato and the best cooking methods

Waxy, smooth potatoes 

Waxy potatoes have ‘smooth’ textured flesh, caused by a lower starch content and a higher water content. The starch in them is also more resistant to higher temperatures than in other kinds of potato. Waxy potatoes are firmer and hold their shape better when cooked, which tends to make them the best potatoes for soups, stews, salads and scalloping.

Starchy, floury potatoes

Starchy potatoes have a ‘floury’ textured flesh which becomes fluffy when cooked. They have a higher starch content and lower water content, with starch that breaks down more easily under heat. Starchy potatoes are the best for chipping, mashing, roasting, baking and frying. This is because they become crispy and fluffy when cooked, and absorb flavours and liquids very well.

All-rounder potatoes

All-rounder potatoes fall in the middle of waxy and starchy. It’s really a spectrum based on how much starch and water is in the potato, so even all-rounders can tend towards being more waxy or more starchy. Two examples are Maris Piper and Desiree potatoes. Maris Pipers are quite starchy, while Desiree are waxier, yet they’re both considered very good for mashing! Reasons for choosing an all-rounder can be its flavour, when you need potatoes that seem to be able to do everything, or when you just want a potato that falls in the middle. Starchy potatoes are usually great for roasting, but some find that while they’re deliciously crispy on the outside, the insides are just a bit too soft and fluffy for their liking. Sometimes you just need to experiment instead of sticking to the starchy/waxy rule.

Growing

How do potatoes grow?

Potatoes are very close to being root vegetables, but despite growing underground they are not the roots of the potato plant. Instead, they are tubers. The plant grows to store food and water for when the weather gets tough, or even to grow a new plant. In England the biggest potato farming counties include Herefordshire and counties on the east coast including Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

potato-growing

Where are our potatoes grown?

Oliver Kay have been working with Garden of Elveden since 2010. We buy Salad Potatoes such as Maris Peer and Leontine varieties, as well as Baking Potatoes including Melody and Nectar varieties. Salad potatoes are available in 2 different sizes – 20-30mm (tiny tots) and 30-42mm – our standard size salad potato. Bakers come in 40’s, 50’s or 60’s.

Garden of Elveden are a specialist fresh potato business based on the 22,500 acre Elveden Estate in the heart of East Anglia’s farming region. Farming has taken place on the estate for almost 100 years. The estate has been privately owned by the Guinness family since 1894. Rupert Guinness transformed the land for agriculture in 1927. Rupert was very forward-thinking, planting Scots Pines as windbreak hedges to prevent the topsoil from blowing away.

Potatoes from Garden of Elveden come from UK, Red Tractor farms and are BRC certified. The site boasts new grading facilities and long-term cold store units to offer year-round continuity of supply. Garden of Elveden are passionate about their brand, taking pride in the product and offering the highest standards in terms of quality and consistency.

We also work with AB Produce in the Midlands who we have bought baking potatoes from for the past 10 years. AB Produce is a family-owned business, 3rd generation, managed by Trevor Eadsforth. AB grow and pack at their site in Measham. AB are passionate about farming and the produce they grow. They also generate renewable energy from the waste they produce, minimising waste to landfill in line with Oliver Kay's aims.

For our chipping potatoes, we buy from Edima in the Midlands. Andy Luca has various farms in the midlands, Lincolnshire and Lancashire. Growing potatoes suited to producing the finest quality chips. Andy has a processing plant at his site near to Birmingham, where he creates fantastic chippers!

 

MARIS PIPER POTATO

Britain’s most popular potato, the Maris Piper is usually a large, smooth oval shape, with very light yellow skin and a light yellow cream coloured flesh. Maris Piper’s are all-rounders with a higher starch content and are highly recommended by Heston Blumenthal, excelling when roasted, mashed and chipped.

DESIREE POTATO

The Desiree potato is typically a long oval shape, with red skin, and light yellow flesh that is on the waxier side, but is nonetheless considered an all-rounder of the firmer variety. Desiree potatoes are particularly favoured for mashing due to their buttery flavour, but are also great for boiling.

KING EDWARD POTATO

King Edward potatoes tend to be, long oval shapes, with a skin that is a distinctive yellow with red blushes. King Edwards have cream coloured, floury flesh, making them potatoes particularly suited for roasting, baking and chipping.

RATTE POTATO

The Ratte potato, or sometimes La Ratte, are small fingerling potatoes from France. They are long and knobbly with a slight curve, yellow skin and pale yellow flesh. Ratte potatoes are waxy and hold their shape well when cooked, and are famed for their rich nutty flavour. Ratte potatoes make for great salads or a delicious puree.

JERSEY ROYAL POTATO

The Jersey Royal potato has been grown exclusively in Jersey for 140 years, now under a Protected Designation of Origin, these small, long ovals shaped potatoes are prized for their sweet, fresh flavour, and are typically found in salads or roasted. Jersey Royal potatoes have light yellow skin and cream coloured, waxy flesh.

SHETLAND BLACK POTATO

Shetland Black potatoes are small, irregular ovals with a floury texture and sweet, buttery flavour. Their most distinctive feature is a purple ring in their otherwise pale yellow flesh. Unfortunately, this ring turns a light grey or brown when cooked. Folklore says that this potato was scavenged from a shipwreck from the Spanish Armada in the Shetland Isles, but it was probably just a result of enthusiastic breeders in Victorian times.

SALAD POTATO

The Salad Blue potato is a starchy, fairly small oval-shaped potato originating in Scotland. It does, however, have very deep blue coloured skin and flesh! The rich colour is retained, particularly when cooked with the skin on. Salad Blues are, despite their name, most suited to the typical uses for starchy potatoes, like mashing, chipping and baking. Their colour alone does make for a very pretty addition to a salad though.

PINK FIR APPLE POTATO

Pink Fir Apple potatoes are known as a ‘fingerling’ potato due to their shape. They are long, knobbly cylinders with pink skin, as their name suggests. Aside from their distinctive shape, Pink Fir Apple potatoes have an earthy, nutty flavour and do very well when boiled or added to salad.

Potato Recipes

CHEF COMPETITION

As part of our fruit and veg celebration, we are holding a monthly competition for chefs to suggest dish ideas using the produce of the month. The best dish idea each month will win a prize and be included in a recipe book that will be published at the end of the fruit & veg celebration in December 2020. So there are 12 chances to win!
We appreciate it’s busy this time of year, but to start off our recipe book in style we are keen to see your sprout dishes - it takes two minutes to show off your hard work! So please take a snap, upload to social media and tag us in, including the hashtag #fruitvegceclebration

To enter your recipe ideas, simply tag us in a photo of your dish with a short description, on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. Alternatively, you can email entries to competition@oliverkayproduce.co.uk. For more information see our fruit and veg celebration page, and entry information, terms and conditions can be viewed here. 

JUNIOR COMPETITION

Chef Eddy is so busy in the kitchen he needs some friends to help him out. So, we are asking you to create a potato head kitchen team member to help! Use your creativity and draw, or make your character! We would also like to know what delicious dish you would make with potatoes!

Send your entries to: competition@oliverkayproduce.co.uk (group entries from schools etc are welcome!) For more information visit our fruit and veg celebration page. Full details, including entry information, terms and conditions can be viewed here.

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