To me, there’s always a profound thrill in harvesting the first crop of potatoes on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden. You can never be sure what’s down there. It’s like digging for buried treasure.
This year I’m growing eight different varieties of potato. That may sound somewhat excessive, and if I’m honest perhaps I did slightly overindulge myself at January’s National Potato Day at Garden Organic’s Ryton Gardens (these days, sad to admit, one of the highlights of my social calendar).
National Potato Day brings together seed potato growers from around the UK and potato groupies like me, anxious to buy seed potatoes to put in egg boxes or the equivalent for several weeks of chitting (sprouting) before planting in early spring.
Seed potatoes are potatoes that have been specially grown in areas free from disease, usually at higher altitudes, in order to help ensure a healthy crop. This year there were over 100 varieties available at the National Potato Day, including rare heritage varieties, a welcome alternative to the reliable but generally uninspiring varieties favoured by the mass producers. The availability of such a diverse range of quality potatoes is a success story in a world where traditional vegetable varieties are gradually disappearing through the combined effects of mass commercial farming, hybridisation and modern seed licensing regulations.
And it is the not-too-distant history of the potato that shows why maintaining genetic diversity of all our vegetables is so important.
Introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century by the Spanish, the potato was soon being hailed as responsible for the elimination of famine across the continent. But by the mid 1800s in Ireland it was this same vegetable that was a fundamental cause of that country’s devastating famine.
There were other factors that contributed to the Irish famine, not least the ruthlessness of landlords who evicted families who could no longer pay their rent, the shameful failure of the British government to provide relief once the scale of the failure of the potato crop became clear and the shocking fact that Ireland continued to export massive quantities of corn, barley and dairy produce to Britain throughout the famine.
But the disaster would not have been anywhere near the scale it reached had the Irish peasantry simply been in a position to grow several different varieties of potatoes. Instead they grew just one – Lumper. Each year they would hold back some potatoes from the Lumper harvest to plant for the following year’s crop.
It was this absence of genetic variation that made it so easy for Phytophthora infestans (blight) to rip through the Irish potato crops, leading to the deaths through starvation of over one million people between 1845 and 1851.
Maintaining diversity of varieties of each plant species means having a broader bank of characteristics from which each species might potentially draw.
For example, in the potato world there are some varieties that are highly blight resistant whilst some are resistant to other problems, such as eelworm, slugs and another potato disease, blackleg. Then we have other important variations to add to the mix, such as taste, shape and even colour.
Reducing diversity, as is happening to all our vegetable species through big business and mass production and mass retail is the horticultural reflection of what is happening to the shops in our High Streets – everywhere seems to shrinking down towards homogenisation, blandness, predictability and loss of true character.
OK, that’s enough of the political stuff, let’s get ourselves into the kitchen, put the stripey apron on and cook something interesting with this brilliant, versatile vegetable.
For this recipe I’m using some of my newly harvested Charlotte potatoes. They are one of my favourite varieties, with a good flavour and texture, but any variety will do (provided, of course, that they are organic).
In creating this dish I separated the eggs and whisked the egg whites before adding them at the last minute in order to give a lighter souffle-like texture, and for the same reason the frittata is baked rather than fried and grilled. To do this you will need a baking dish or tray around 20cm square and 4cm deep.
potato, spinach and broad bean frittata with mint oil
for the mint oil
50 g fresh mint leaves
100g extra virgin olive oil
for the frittata
450 g organic Charlotte (or similar) potatoes, scrubbed clean and quartered (or, for larger potatoes, cut into roughly 1 cm cubes)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ tsp dried oregano
175 g broad beans (weight after being removed from pods)
200 g organic spinach, washed
50 g vegetarian Parmesan
6 organic free range eggs, separated
30 g fresh chives, finely chopped
1 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1. For the mint oil, bring a pan of salted water to the boil. Add the mint leaves and stir quickly to submerge them all. After 10 seconds remove from the heat, drain and immediately plunge into ice cold water. Drain again and very gently squeeze out excess water. Place the blanched mint leaves into a blender with the olive oil and blitz until combined.
2. Pour the mint oil into a muslin cloth suspended in a sieve over a bowl and leave it to drip through slowly. This will take a while. Don’t hurry the process by squeezing the Muslin or the oil will end up cloudy. Once strained, set the mint oil to one side.
3. Cook the potatoes in boiling water until just tender. Drain and set aside. When cool, slice into disks around half a centimetre thick.
4. While the potatoes are cooking, bring a separate pan of water to the boil. Add the broad beans and bring back to the boil. Cook for 2 minutes then drain and plunge the beans into a bowl of ice cold water. When cool enough to handle, slip the skins off the broad beans (these skins can be put into your compost waste). Put the skinned broad beans to one side.
5. Heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat. Add the spinach and cook for 2-3 minutes, until wilted. Drain in a colander and set aside.
6. Add the remaining tbsp of olive oil to the pan and again heat over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft. Add the garlic and oregano and cook, stirring, for a further three minutes then remove from the heat and leave to cool.
7. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until the mixture forms soft peaks.
8. Gently squeeze the excess moisture from the spinach then chop finely and place in a mixing bowl with the sliced potatoes, broad beans, onion, garlic, Parmesan, chives, egg yolks and salt. Stir thoroughly to combine, then add about a quarter of the stiffened egg whites and mix carefully. Fold in the remaining egg white carefully, trying to retain as much air in the mixture as possible.
9. Lightly oil the base and sides of a baking dish or tray before pouring in the frittata mixture. Place in the pre-heated oven. Cook for 25-30 minutes, or until the frittata is golden brown and a sharp knife or skewer comes out clean when the frittata is pierced.
10. Leave to cool slightly before cutting into slices. Serve a drizzle of the mint oil and a crisp green salad.