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Dig it

2010 October 16
by Paul Vallely

My son will not remember it as I do. The rasp of the spade as it cut through the clay. The grunt of exertion as my father’s heavy shoe hit down on the lug and the blade bit into the claggy soil and he lifted and turned it. Or later in the year – this time of year – came the easier movement of the garden fork as the tines brushed aside the withered foliage and pushed through the friable worked soil to lift the potatoes.

It was something I did not do in his stead when he had gone. My son has never seen Britain’s great staple food emerge from the crumbly loam.  For his generation potatoes come washed and bagged from the supermarket. His eyebrows raised the first time he went to the farmshop next door to his Grandma’s and found that this king of vegetables came covered in organic black soil. But at least he knew from Grandma’s cooking that these potatoes tasted better than the supermarket variety. Ours is a generation which has forgotten what a range of tastes a potato can encompass.

That farmshop, Manic Organic, is a few doors down the road from where the Cropper Brothers, John and Robin, farm at Aughton on the flat loamy Lancashire plain outside Ormskirk. On Mill End Farm they will lift 80 per cent of their 350 acre potato crop this month. They always do in October, which is traditionally why schools have their autumn half-term holiday this week. In the old days, when potato lifting was a labour-intensive activity, children formed an important part of the workforce. “It was always regarded as the potato picking holiday,” recalls Robin. “When I was a boy, 40 years ago, large numbers of schoolchildren between the ages of 14 and 16 came to help.”

The story of the potato is one of the stories of our nation’s history. Despite popular expressions like “as British as fish and chips” the potato is, of course, an immigrant to these shores. For thousands of years Britons survived on bread and ale. Though the potato was probably first domesticated in Peru or Chile over 4,000 years ago, it was only brought to Europe after the Spanish adventurer Pizarro destroyed the Incan empire and brought back its staple carbohydrate as part of his plunder. The story goes that it was brought to England by Walter Raleigh or Francis Drake in the 1580s along with other booty plundered from Spanish ships by British privateers. Certainly the English herbalist John Gerard was growing potatoes in London by 1597.

Once it was discovered that potatoes yielded more than twice the calories per acre than did grain – and was safer from pillage by marauding armies – the new crop became quickly established across Europe. There was a little resistance. France was seized with a rumour that they caused leprosy. In Scotland devout Presbyterians took against them because they weren’t mentioned in the Bible. Peasants in Russia pronounced them the Devil’s apples and in the American colonies some branded them the spoor of witches.  But landowners and government officials across the continent promoted the rapid conversion of fallow land into potato plots. In Prussia the king threatened to cut off the noses and ears of peasants who refused to plant them.

With the displacement of large populations from the countryside in the 18th and 19th century the potato – cheap, nutritious and easy to grow in small plots of land – became the fuel for Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Countries like Ireland had already become seriously dependent upon growing and eating large quantities of potatoes – a reliance which came to have terrible consequences in 1845 when a blight attacked the potato crop and caused the devastating famine that prompted massive emigration on a large scale, shifting the demography of Britain and many other countries around the world. The potato is still central to Irish culinary culture: I once ate a meal in a grand country house hotel in the West of Ireland where no less than five potato dishes were served with the meat: mashed, boiled, roast, chipped and in croquettes. The potato is now the world’s fourth biggest crop after rice, wheat, and maize. Even China is switching; it now grows more potatoes than anyone else.

But up here in the north-west of England was the first place in mainland Britain to grow potatoes. The Cropper family of Aughton have been growing them at least since Robin’s great-grandfather’s time. Yet the business has changed radically since then. “My great grandfather had just 70 acres and 17 fulltime staff,” Robin says, and the potatoes were lifted by a horse-drawn chain and dropped to the floor, where they were picked up by hand and put into sacks. “Today we farm 1,300 acres of our own land, and more of other farmers’, with just 4 fulltime staff and 4 part-timers. Now the harvester scoops the potatoes, sifts out the soil (the stone are separated earlier, at planting). Then the potatoes are moved by a hydraulic elevator into a trailer. The elevator can be adjusted by a skilful driver so that the potatoes never drop more than a foot which avoids bruising.

Then, back in the yard, they are then graded and stored, either in bulk, which is cheaper, or in boxes, which is better.

They aren’t washed; they store better in their soil.” Mature potatoes can be kept for as long as six months in a cool, dark, humid place. Exposure to light which causes them to turn green.

We specialise in Maris Pipers for chip shops,” he adds. “It’s a high quality potato which is low in sugars and has a high dry matter so it makes the best chips. They are delivered to the chip-shops in the soil and not washed at all, just peeled.”

But everything in the market garden is not rosy. Average potato yields doubled from 1960 to 1990 but growth has been slower since.  Clear climate changes are in evidence over the past four decades with an average rise of 1.5°C and around 200 hours more sunshine. Rainfall has been more variable and these trends are accelerating. “Potatoes need steady rain and sunshine in the growing period,” says Farmer Cropper. “They don’t like prolonged dry periods or deluges. This year has been a difficult one, with a very dry spell early in the year, and a very wet one up to October.” A warming climate gives longer growing season and higher growth rates but it also encourages pests and diseases. “We have more resistant varieties now

But blight is still a problem in a year of high humidity.”

There is another problem. A new generation seems increasingly to prefer pasta to potatoes. Families in Britain have eaten   833 million fewer meals featuring potatoes since 2001 – a fall of 3.1 per cent while rice is up 33 per cent and past 21 per cent.  “Pasta is seen as faster and healthier,” laments Robin Cropper. “There’s a popular misconception that potatoes are fattening, but they’re not.” There are just 100 calories in a medium (150gram) potato which has no fat, high fibre and a dose of vitamins C, B1 and B6. “And they need not take a long time to cook. For mash you can cut them in small pieces which considerably reduces the cooking time. With a deep-fat fryer chips take just 12 minutes. Boiled in their skins, straight from the bag, they are very nutritious.”

He should know. He is a single father with three kids yet manages to cook potatoes every day. “My favourite is dauphinoise, which take 10 minutes to prepare and then need 40 minutes in the oven. But three times a week I do chips, which I twice fry to get them crisp on the outside and fluffy on the in.”  Sounds complicated? “Not at all I just flash them in the fryer for 4 minutes at 180 degrees and then take them out till the oil gets back to 180 and cook them for another 8 minutes. I use a healthy oil, rapeseed. Very easy, with no additives.”

The potato, he insist, is the food of the future not the past. “It’s very environmentally sound,” he concludes. “Most potatoes most are locally grown; 70 per cent of ours are eaten with a 25 mile radius of the farm.” And 60 per cent of Britain’s potatoes are eaten fresh. The British Potato Council is to launch a fightback with, among other strategies, a tv celebrity chef MasterSpud 2011 competition. Assuming, that is, it survives the government’s looming bonfire of the quangos. If it doesn’t, of course, they could always stick a load of potatoes round the bottom of the bonfire for baking. As for reconnecting my son with the soil, perhaps it’s time to get an allotment.


from the Indpendent

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