Tuber virtuoso: the first earlies

Categories: Expert guidance

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: the first earlies

Of all the landmarks of time that I look forward to through the course of each year—from getting the Christmas Radio Times, to our local tennis courts suddenly becoming packed during Wimbledon—none gets me quite so twitchy in the build-up to its arrival as the first of the British new potatoes. They are the most delicious of markers that balmy evenings and lazy summer days are certainly near, if not quite here.

The only problem is, those potatoes run to nature’s schedule and no-one else’s. A long, rainy winter like the one we have just had in Britain inevitably means the new potatoes (or ‘earlies’ as they are also called, for obvious reasons) are not going to be with us nearly as early as they could be this year. This year I fear I will have to be as patient as the farmers, who could not start planting their new potatoes until significantly later than usual because their land was just too wet.

The first earlies are usually ready for harvesting in May—April in a good year—and are rightly heralded with much excitement by farmers, traders and customers alike. They arrive a little while after the fanfare given to Jersey royals. Which isn’t to say that fanfare isn’t deserved. I like a good Jersey royal as much as—or maybe more than—the next person, but I do worry that they dominate our collective thinking, when there are so many other wonderful British new potatoes.

First off the harvester
Cornwall’s new potato harvest is usually first off the harvester in the UK, thanks to the Gulf Stream bringing warm Atlantic air to its relatively mild coastal climate. My eyes are peeled for the first Cornish earlies to arrive, hotly followed by those from the coastlines of Suffolk and Pembrokeshire.

What a wonderful quirk of new potatoes it is that we often talk about and respect the region they come from, even more than the variety of potato itself. It is an acknowledgement of how much the terroir matters to the resulting flavour and texture: an area’s unique combination of soil and climate can make all the difference to a variety, not to forget good old farming know-how, too.

The earlies of Welsh Pembrokeshire, Scottish Ayrshire and Northern Irish Comber each have EU Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, which serves to make specific mention of the contribution the local farming skills play in turning up new potatoes of real distinction. The farmers of not only those areas but also Cheshire and Norfolk, and any that has its name intertwined with an established pedigree for new potatoes, must feel extra pride in that.

Freshness and optimum flavour
I am proud just to say I have shared the view from the back of a harvester, as it drove across a field bringing up the first of that farm’s earlies. If you ever get the chance to do the same, grab it. The smell of potatoes so newly out of the ground is like nothing else. They are as fresh as fresh can be. The challenge for the farmers from that point on is getting them to the consumer as fast as possible, with minimal storage time, to retain that freshness and optimum flavour.

Contrast that with retail concerns in recent years of potatoes being stored for long periods to make sure the new potato season can run for as long possible, even if those potatoes were actually harvested the previous year and stored for months. That has happened—such is the pressure to unnaturally extend the season, resort to selling (oh, the irony) potatoes that are actually old. There could not be a worse way of treating new potatoes. Good farmers and sellers know the real joy of earlies is to be found as close as possible to them coming out of the ground.

Whether the variety being grown is epicure, vale’s emerald, sharpe’s express, home guard or one of the many others that make for excellent earlies, they will stay freshest with some of the soil left on. That is especially so for the first earlies, as their young skin is so delicate. Sometimes you only have to brush at the soil to reveal bright white flesh underneath.

Simmer, don’t boil
That delicacy needs to be remembered when cooking the first earlies, to protect their flavour. Steaming would be ideal, but if boiling them comes naturally there are two things to remember: firstly, simmer rather than boil; and secondly, cook them in water until only just tender, then drain the water off and let them finish cooking in their own steam. I promise you their texture will be all the better for it. Cook them like this and you will find the skin—whether particularly fine or not—easily slips off when the potato has cooled just enough for you to gently hold it.

Earlies that are still warm gorgeously take on board whatever flavours you send their way, so we need to take care not to overwhelm them. Good butter and salt are hard to beat, and I also really rather love this recipe for earlies with buttery brown shrimps and wild garlic. All three main elements share a robust elegance, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction.

As spring turns into summer, that’s when the larger ‘second earlies’ come through, and that’s the time for us to maybe get a bit cleverer in the kitchen. Save any thoughts of new potato frittatas or the like ‘till then; for these first weeks of the season, there is a lot to be said for keeping things simple and allowing the glorious flavour of these newest of new season potatoes to really shine through.