This year's crop of Jersey Royal potatoes have arrived early at Borough Market's fruit and veg stalls. So what's so special about this particular tuber?
You say potato, Borough Market says Jersey Royal: the long, oval, yellowy nuggets that have been grown exclusively on the island of Jersey since the late 19th century and have been Britain's favourite potato for almost as long. The Jersey Royal enjoys EU protected status – meaning each one can be traced directly back to its farm of origin. Peak season is May, when up to 1,500 tonnes of this beloved 'brown gold' arrives daily on our shores, but they should be hitting the stalls at Borough Market in sizeable quantities in April.
What's it like?
Rich in taste and firm of texture, the Jersey Royal isn't called 'brown gold' for nothing. It is renowned for its flavour, its texture and its remarkable resilience, which allows it to be transported without any loss of taste or shape. Jersey Royals are checked twice by workers and quality controllers before being packed for export, and are shipped overnight to ensure that consumers can buy them at their freshest. You'll find them an excellent addition to just about anything – fish, meat, cheese, salads – although they are just as enjoyable on their own with a knob of butter and some parsley.
The history of this particular potato goes back to 1878, when two truly enormous potatoes arrived in Hugh de la Haye's local store on Jersey. Being a potato farmer, Hugh knew impressive spuds when he saw them. One of the potatoes – which had 16 eyes – was cut into 16 pieces, 10 of which were planted by the farmer on a steep field overlooking the sea. Come spring, the field produced a large and early crop. The majority of the yield looked boring, round and lumpenly potato-like – yet in among these was a plant that produced nothing but delicious, kidney-shaped tubers. Dubbed the Royal Jersey Fluke on account of its unexpected origin, this breed was carefully nurtured and developed, making Hugh's fellow islanders very happy indeed – so much so that they later honoured him at a formal gathering with a testimonial and a purse of gold sovereigns. Today the Jersey Royal accounts for almost half of Jersey's income from all agricultural products: not bad for a fluke of nature.
What are the rules?
Like most royals, Jersey's prized potato is carefully protected. Both in the field and at the 30 packing stations, government inspectors ensure that the crop reaches the very high standards that have been set in legislation. To meet these demands, the 400 or so growers on the island carefully control their own stock. Selection is made within the seed fields to select plants yielding tubers of a suitable size, as over-large tubers cannot be shipped. Most of the crop is planted by hand on steep slopes that would struggle to bear the weight of machinery. While artificial chemicals can be used, local seaweed tends to be the fertiliser of choice, as its salt content is believed to enhance the flavour. When the crop is lifted, great care is taken to ensure that the tubers are left undamaged, and growers are committed to getting the produce over to the mainland less than 24 hours after being harvested; a practice that for the farmers means working around the clock, but which for you and me means that these most regal of spuds are the best and freshest they can possibly be.