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Heritage potato varieties

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Jennifer Redmond Jennifer Redmond | 18:01 UK time, Monday, 24 January 2011

Alan Romans

Alan Romans

It's time to stock up on seed potatoes for the veg garden - but instead of reaching for the same old varieties this year, discover the flavour and quality of the spuds our ancestors grew. Heritage potato varieties are experiencing something of a revival: at the annual Potato Days, held all over the country throughout late January and February, there are often well over 100 different varieties on offer, in every shape, colour and size. Alan Romans has been growing an encyclopaedic range of specialist potatoes on his farm in Fife, Scotland, all his life: we asked him what makes the golden oldies so special.

Let's start by clearing up a commonly-asked question. What exactly do we mean by a 'heritage' potato?

Well, definitions vary. In a catalogue I helped compile some years ago we decided on 1950 and before, though this was simply because I wanted to include Roseval (deep red salad potato with ruby-red stems; excellent cooking and flavour) – one of my particular favourites.

The earliest variety still around, Fortyfold, dates from around 1800, though. Old varieties tend to have survived because a number of people are convinced that they have characteristics not found in modern varieties. This usually centres on flavour, texture or the way they behave on cooking.

This is not just nostalgia – the useful gene sequences which make potatoes the most productive and nutritious crop on the planet date from about 3000 years ago. Modern breeding is about 'tweaking' the crop to give an increase in saleable product – the priorities are disease resistance and uniform size, with low dry matter and high water content for extra weight.

This means many post-1950 varieties are not as palatable as the oldies, which are the best of what was a very large bunch. For decades supermarkets have dictated that very floury potatoes, blue skinned varieties and coloured flesh types are unsaleable in their environment. If you're of a mind to disagree – and many gardeners are – until recently you had little choice but to grow your own.

In the last 20 years, seed potato variety availability to gardeners has increased from about 20 bog standard varieties to getting on for 200. Interestingly, where gardeners lead, the supermarkets follow and they are now increasing their variety numbers to some extent.

There are 3 types of certified heritage seed potato.

1. National Listed varieties

These are registered varieties that have been around as field grown crops for many years and often continue to have a market. They include long-standing favourites like Duke of York (1891), International Kidney (1879), King Edward (1902) and Arran Pilot (1930) – all heritage varieties that have stood the test of time and are still popular today. However all of them can and do come and go depending on the confidence of a grower to find a market. Pink Fir Apple (1850) was hardly heard of a few years ago – yet now thanks to rave reviews from chefs and gardeners it too is a National Listed variety.

Pink Fir Apple, Arran Pilot, King Edward, International Kidney

From left to right: Pink Fir Apple, Arran Pilot, King Edward, International Kidney

2. Non National Listed varieties

Public pressure has led to relaxation of very restrictive rules and it is now possible for farmers to grow these varieties with the agreement of the relevant agricultural authority. They are often grown in very small quantities and are often quite expensive. In this category comes our oldest variety, Fortyfold (1800), with famously high yields even by modern standards; the Victorian variety Salad Blue if you like purple mash; Shetland Black (pre-1923) with its deep purple skin and yellow flesh; and Beauty of Bute (1890), a fine early maincrop with white flesh and a floury texture.

Shetland black, Highland Burgundy Red, Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy, Salad Blue

From left to right: Shetland black, Highland Burgundy Red, Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy, Salad Blue

3. Minitubers

Laboratory grown from tissue culture material sourced from the National Collection, these are exceptionally clean seed, vigorous but small enough to be easily posted. Their expense is balanced to some extent by cheaper postage. Fortyfold is available as a minituber, as is Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy (c.1900), another near-black variety but with tinges of red, white and blue too. Other minitubers include the classic blue-fleshed 19th-century French salad variety Vitelotte, and the Victorian Highland Burgundy Red, which has burgundy flesh and a lovely fluffy texture.

The wonderful thing about heritage potatoes is that every variety has a story to tell about the people who grow them. Try a few this year and enjoy your window into history.

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