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Gardening With Attitude
By Mike Clark

by Mike Clark

A new season is upon us. At least, it should be, according to the calendar.

But if this is global warming, please may I opt out? Excuse the mucky fingers, and the gutters between the keys. Iíve just got the last of my tatties planted. Iím soaked to the skin, and for once Iím not enjoying gardening.

Fitivver, tomorrowís dinner has been invested, and all we can do now is hope.

That was the last of nine varieties of tattie Iím growing this year, and two of them are a wee bit hard to get. But I reckon taste and texture are worth far more than uniformity and keep-ability. Which is why I still grow tatties the supermarkets love to hate.

Can I just give you a wee feel of a couple of tatties which our forefathers grew, for their flavour and texture, and which our supermarkets will never stock because they donít fit the cardboard (tasting) cutout?

Highland Burgundy Red
Mashed With Butter and Cream

Iíve witnessed many a raised eyebrow when Iíve shoved a bowl of pink mash on the table. Even though my guests are mostly producers of their own spuds, they generally stick to the same reliable varieties. The gardener who will try a different tomato variety every year, and experiment with new salad leaves, rarely deviates from the favourite tattie. Maybe itís bred into us. The potato is a staple, and a good store of them sees us through the long cold winter days. Reliability in cropping and in storing is perhaps paramount.

Well, Iím not afraid to live dangerously. I like to try a different tattie, and risk the pests, diseases and the potential famine.

Itís not just the reckless streak in me. Itís a craving for flavour and texture Ė yes, and even colour. And itís also a desire to maintain varieties that are in danger of being lost in the relentless pursuit of disease-resistance, bulk and uniformity.

And so it was that two years ago I bought some micro propagated plants of two old, and increasingly rare, varieties. I nurtured them carefully in pots for their first season, expecting constant attacks of aphids and other pests. But they grew happily and healthily, and not only produced enough reasonably sized tubers for seed, but even a few big enough to be worth a taste.

So the next season, I had a good crop of both.

Highland Burgundy Red
Highland Burgundy Reds are as colourful as they sound. They are an early maincrop variety, and IĎve found them to be as good at the start of their season as they are at the end. I tried the first of them around the same time as I was enjoying my early Duke of Yorks (one of my staples!), and they tasted lovely as a ďnew potatoĒ. I had the last of them from store at the beginning of February, and they hadnít deteriorated one bit. Iím sure they would have stored longer, if I hadnít been so greedy.

 As the name suggests, they have a rather spectacular burgundy-red flesh, with a very narrow white band. Unusually, they keep their colour very well on cooking. When mature, they have a dry, rather fluffy texture, and the flavour is mild and slightly sweet. On the plate, they have the appearance of mildly anaemic beetroot, and never fail to cause a comment!  Cultivation presented few problems, though the haulms tended to sprawl. Iíll give them a little more space this year. They suffered a little slug damage, but nothing too serious. They are reputed to be susceptible to blight, but mine did not fall victim.

This is a very old variety, the origin of which is lost in the mists of time. Rarely found in seed catalogues, it tends to be listed as ďoldĒ, or ďdate unknownĒ!

Shetland Black
I would have to describe Shetland Blacks as tasty but tricky Ė tricky in the kitchen, anyway, if not in the garden. They are also an early maincrop, but though they too stored well, Iíd say they were better used young. They came into their own when the usual earlies were past that ďnew potatoĒ flavour, and at that stage it was just like tasting the first new tatties of the season all over again. Using them from store after the turn of the year, I found the flavour somewhat missing.

 However, Iíll continue to grow them and use them as they are ready, because at that stage they are sweet and firm, becoming floury as they mature. They have a blue-black skin, and a similar dark ring inside. Unfortunately, this fades to dark grey when cooked, but still adds some colourful interest to a meal. The tubers tended to be small, but fairly uniform in size, and so were ideal for boiling whole. They are inclined to disintegrate all of a sudden when cooking, so you need to set aside your glass of wine and keep a constant eye on them.

I had no cultivation problems with these either. The haulms are short and quite sparse, blight was not an issue, and though there was some slug damage it was only minor. One thing I did note was that they seemed very shallow rooted. This, combined with the short foliage, may make them suitable for growing in pots.

Shetland Black is reckoned by some to date from 1923, but my research shows SB in production in the 1880ís or even earlier.

Micro propagated plants are available now for several varieties which have almost disappeared from cultivation. I, for one, am glad they are becoming available again. When youíve experienced the taste and texture of some of these forgotten gems, you realise how bland potatoes have become.

The Organic Gardening Catalogue and Thompson & Morgan list several, and others Iím now tempted to try are Witchhill, a first early from 1881, and Skerry Blue, an Irish variety from 1846.

Have a go yourself. Your taste buds will thank you for it!

© Mike Clark 2005.