Food writer, historian and host of the Borough Market Cookbook Club Angela Clutton celebrates the various varieties of British potatoes and offers her expert guidance on cooking with them to make the most of their wonderful diversity of flavour, texture, shape and colour. This month: waxy maincrop potatoes
I’m in the mood to make a potato gratin. Or maybe more truthfully, I am in the mood to eat a potato gratin. Because outside the winter is biting with cold and rain, and deep inside I know that those layers of baked potato are going to be supremely comforting, warming and delicious. I know, too, just the potato that I need for the job.
It is going to be one of many waxy varieties of maincrop spuds. Not the starchy, floury type I have written about in this series before. Slices of those would collapse in the baking. No, what I want are potatoes that are firmer, with less starch and higher water content, which means they have more bite and retain their shape while cooking. These waxy potatoes are not so good at taking on other flavours, but are more robust in themselves. All of which means there are going to be certain potato dishes they are more suited for.
High up on that list is the gratin I am currently planning. Maybe it will be an indulgent dauphinoise (which is really just one of the many regional variations of French gratin), whose slices of potato are baked low and slow in cream with just a hint of garlic and ideally little else. A meal in its own right with a few bitter leaves on the side for balance.
Hold their shape
Or possibly the less luxuriant but just as heart-warming classic boulangere of potato slices cooked in stock. Its relative simplicity allows more opportunity for other flavour elements to be added into the dish—be that thinly sliced onions, anchovies, bacon, or just sprigs of woody herbs. My very favourite way to roast a shoulder of lamb is slowly atop layers of waxy potatoes, so that the meat’s juices run into the potatoes too, but the potatoes hold their shape despite the many hours in the oven.
I wouldn’t even consider making that meal if I didn’t know for sure that the potatoes I had to hand were waxy. Imagine the disappointment of getting to the other side of five hours’ slow-roasting, only to discover your spuds have disintegrated into mush. So, it is worth knowing that you can spot a waxy potato in the kitchen by cutting into it. A floury type of potato will want to hold tight to the knife and will leave a residue of white starch on its blade, whereas a waxier potato will fall naturally when cut, with little residue on the knife.
Of probably even more use is to be able to spot a waxy potato when you are buying it. Ask—of course ask—when buying, and also look out for desiree with their red skins and creamy yellow flesh (you are on a good strike for a waxy spud with most of the red-skinned varieties available); marfona which is something of an all-rounder potato, but at the waxier end of the spectrum; or duke of york which is one of the heritage varieties born out of the surge in potato cultivation in the UK during the later Victorian years and through the early 1900s.
Tragedy of the potato famine
That came in part as a reaction to the tragedy of Ireland’s mid-19th century potato famine. While I’ve been describing potato dishes like gratin with words such as ‘indulgent’ and ‘luxuriant’ that is because that is how they fit into our modern food context. But I am in no danger of forgetting that for a long time potatoes were really the food of the poor. Nowhere more so than in Ireland in the 1800s, which relied hugely on potatoes as the main food resource for the nation. When a form of potato mould known as ‘blight’ swept to Ireland from northern Europe, it caused the potato plants to wilt and the potatoes themselves to disintegrate.
It was exacerbated by how much Irish farming had relied upon one variety of potato: the rather uninspiringly named ‘lumper’, so-called for its lumpy appearance. As well as being very high yielding, its other main characteristic was very low resistance to blight. So when that came, so did disaster, with the potato crop failures leading to around 1 million people dying and many more fleeing the country.
My brief segue there into potato history is important because it is the ensuing development of many different, stronger (more blight-resistant) UK potato varieties that lies behind the year-round spectrum of potatoes we can enjoy today, and whose real culinary joy comes from knowing, understanding and making use of how those potatoes evolve with our seasons.
A bridge into spring
Not least these waxy maincrops. They play such an important part in the cycle. In the heart of a bleak midwinter they make the aforementioned gorgeous gratins, or can be used in broths where their ability to stay firm makes them a valued ingredient of flavour and bite, not just a thickener for a soup in the way that a more floury potato would be. And they are also the bridge out of the cold and into the spring, when what we want to eat starts to change.
For while it is a truth that seems barely possible right now, as brighter mornings turn to warmer days I know a boulangere is no longer going to quite cut it. I—we—will start to crave lighter dishes, maybe even some kind of potato salad. That is when to reach for some other treasures of the maincrop waxy collection. This time the smaller, longer varieties such as nutty anya; smooth charlotte; or best of all the knobbly pink fir apple potato which dates back to the mid-1800s and is the British counterpart to the more widely known ratte.
Those are the maincrop varieties—sometimes sold as ‘salad’ potatoes’—that will see us through until the first new potatoes appear in early summer, and the whole joy of the potato year can begin anew again.
Try Angela’s dish of lamb cutlets, pan-fried potatoes and aubergines—a perfect showcase for waxy maincrop potatoes.