From about the middle of March serious UK foodys begin to keep a close eye on the potatoes in the shops. They are on the lookout for a smallish kidney shaped potato with a fragile, delicate skin - the first of the season’s Jersey Royals, for many of us, a harbinger of spring.
Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, had been growing potatoes for years but it was in 1878 that a local farmer, Hugh de la Haye, bought a large potato with some 15 eyes. He didn’t eat it. Instead he divided it between his friends who planted their pieces in their own ground. The resulting potatoes yielded well but, with one exception, all resembled the parent plant. The exception was a plant bearing creamy yellow kidney shaped potatoes. De la Haye named it a Jersey Royal Fluke.
It was indeed a lucky fluke because that potato, noted for its distinct, almost sweet, nutty and earthy flavour is one that is prized by both chefs and home cooks.
From the field…
Where once there were many potato farmers now there are only about 20. On a recent visit to Jersey I met two of them Steven Labey and Didier Hellio along with Tim Ward of the Albert Bartlett Pack-house and John Garlton of Genuine Jersey. They told me about the work that goes into producing our Jersey Royals. Depending on the climate during the short season the crop can produce some 40,000 tonnes per year - 99% of the crop destined for the UK .
Whilst the growers are trying to produce earlier crops by planting in December the usual time to start planting is the first two weeks of January. It takes 12 weeks from planting to lifting in one of the most labour intensive productions imaginable.
After harvesting the last of the crop at the end of June the light, sandy soil has to be fertilised, sometimes a green manure is used but more traditionally the soil is nourished by a deep layer of local vraic, seaweed rich in minerals.
The seed crop for the following year is dug up about July and tubers carefully selected. By the autumn the seed potato will have produced three or four shoots. A few tubers will be planted under glass to provide a very early crop but it is a costly method and the flavour considered not quite so fine.
Jersey slopes north to south and some of the slopes (côtils) are incredibly steep. But they receive long hours of sunshine and consequently are the best for an early crop. Unfortunately they are also too steep for machinery. Farmers park their tractor at the top of the côtil, winch down a plough and by moving the tractor pull the plough along. The potatoes here have to be hand planted and hand lifted. All potatoes have to be individually sown at the same angle and depth so they grow at the same rate, essential for the harvesting. To warm the soil and protect the crop from frost the fields are covered with plastic sheeting. On the flatter ground machinery is used to bring the potatoes to the surface before being collected manually. No wonder they are such a pricey delicacy.
...to the fork
The crop is then sorted, graded, washed, bagged and shipped as quickly as possible to the UK. Each bag of Jersey Royals sold can be traced back to the farm on which the potatoes were grown. To ensure that they are the genuine product the Royals have been granted Protected Designation of Origin status, ie they can only be grown on Jersey.
A few days later I looked out of the window on my flight back to the UK. Far below me I could see silvery field upon silvery field – potatoes tucked up snugly under their plastic coats just waiting to be harvested, cooked and served with knob of butter. Anna Hyman
Many airlines operate from UK airports to Jersey and for anybody not wishing to fly Condor Ferries also operate a regular service.