Neat, firm and nutty, Jersey Royals are traditionally the first potatoes of the year, with a special place in the food calendar as a herald of spring and of better weather. We explore the background of this most special of spuds.
Jersey Royals were first cultivated by local farmer Hugh de La Haye, who in 1878 divided up the 15 sprouting eyes on a particularly large potato he had bought between himself and his friends. The following spring they produced a large and early crop. One of these plants produced nothing but kidney shaped potatoes. It was a complete fluke discovery, but a popular one. De La Haye nurtured the plant with the unusual shaped and early crop, and it duly became known as the Jersey Royal Fluke – Jersey for the place, Royal for the quality and Fluke for the origin…
Now Jersey Royals make up 50 per cent of the island’s agricultural income, but the methods of planting, growing and harvesting remain largely unchanged. Christine Helio has been farming the potato since she was 14 years old. “The first Royals are planted from early January,” she says. “It’s all hand work as it’s too dangerous to use tractors. You can’t afford to get it wrong.”
The distinctive potato is planted every year on Jersey’s steep southeast facing slopes known as côtils. Planting is phased every week from January to March to meet demand, but with the island having had its wettest winter for 50 years, and its coldest Easter since 1894, the challenge of planting and harvesting has been and continues to be even greater this year.
The potatoes have European Union Protected Designation of Origin status, which means they have to be grown in Jersey, and that the seed stock has to come from the Jersey crop as well. The way the land is fertilised is also unique. Farmers use seaweed, known as vraic, collected from the beaches during the autumn high tides. “It’s a natural fertiliser, which definitely has an effect on the flavour,” explains William Church, of the Jersey Royal Company Ltd.
Growing them on steep slopes means it’s not possible to use machinery to harvest the potatoes, even if the farmers wanted to. “No one would choose to grow on steep slopes. It’s very labour intensive,” says Church. So hundreds of seasonal workers are employed to bring the crop in as soon as spring arrives. Starting at the higher slopes, the earliest potatoes are small, slightly immature and much more delicate, so they need to be handled gently. As the season goes on, the more mature, slightly larger potatoes from lower down the slopes where the landscape isn’t as steep are harvested.
It’s the traditional methods of farming, which are often passed on through three or four generations which give this particular vegetable its remarkable shape and flavour. “Jersey Royals are by far the best tasting salad potato,” says Helio. “Their flavour is unique.” Church agrees: “The potato has a very distinct, sweet and nutty taste, with a waxy exterior. When you boil Jersey Royals, they remain intact whereas other new potatoes have a tendency to fall apart. It’s the king of potatoes!”
HAVING TATERS LATER? TRY THESE ROYAL RECIPES:
Herb-roasted Jersey Royals with Cucumber and Paprika Dip
A seasonal take on a classic snack to serve for family and friends, these potatoes make a great seasonal nibble to serve with drinks.
- 1kg (2lb 4oz) Jersey Royals, scrubbed
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 100g (4oz) low fat Greek-style yogurt
- 300g tub light soft cheese with garlic and herbs
- ¼ cucumber, finely chopped
- ½ tsp paprika, plus extra for sprinkling
Cook the Jersey Royals in lightly salted boiling water until almost tender – about 10-15 minutes. Drain well.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C, fan oven 180 degrees C, Gas Mark 6.
Tip the Jersey Royals into a roasting pan and add the olive oil, rosemary and thyme. Season with a little salt and black pepper, then toss to coat. Roast for 25-30 minutes, until browned.
Meanwhile, make the dip by mixing together the yogurt, soft cheese, cucumber and paprika. Serve with the Jersey Royals, sprinkled with a little extra paprika.
Jersey Royals, Salmon and Broccoli Bake
Slice and cook Jersey Royals to top this easy-to-make fish bake. This is a great recipe for using up Jersey Royals that youíve cooked the day before.
- 750g (1 1/2lb) Jersey Royals, scrubbed
- 1 head broccoli, broken into florets
- 300g (10oz) skinless, boneless salmon, cut into chunks
- 2tbcp cornflour
- 300g (10oz) low fat soft cheese
- 4 tbsp milk
- 4 tbsp chopped fresh dill or parsley
- 25g (1oz) butter
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cook the Jersey Royals in lightly salted boiling water until just tender ñ about 15 minutes. At the same time, cook the broccoli in a small amount of boiling water for 5-6 minutes. Drain well.
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C, fan oven 170 degrees C, Gas Mark 5.
Put the salmon chunks into a bowl and add the cornflour and some seasoning. Toss together to coat the salmon lightly, then transfer it to a 1.2 litre (2 pint) baking dish. Add the broccoli florets.
Beat the soft cheese until smooth, then beat in the milk and chopped herbs. Pour over the salmon and broccoli.
Slice the Jersey royals and arrange them on top of the salmon mixture. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with black pepper. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the Jerseys are lightly browned.
Pile the crushed potatoes and top with the cod and a pile of the reserved bacon. Pour over the dressing and serve.
Read the piece as it appeared on flavourfirst.org here