Tomatoes

Tomato – the edible, often red, veg of the plant Solanum lycopersicum, commonly known as a tomato plant. The plant belongs to the nightshade family, Solanaceae (potatoes, auberinges/ eggplants). The species originated in western South America.

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Wild versions were small, like cherry tomatoes, and most likely yellow rather than red. A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were erroneously thought to be poisonous by Europeans who were suspicious. This was exacerbated by the interaction of the tomato’s acidic juice with pewter plates. The leaves and immature fruit in fact contain trace amounts of solanine which in larger quantity would be toxic, although the ripe fruit does not. Aztecs used the fruit in their cooking. The Nahuatl (Aztec language) word tomatl gave rise to the Spanish word “tomate”, from which the English word tomato derived. The exact date of domestication is unknown, but by 500 BC it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico. The Pueblo people are thought to have believed that those who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination. The large, lumpy variety of tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in 1521. Christopher Columbus may have taken them back as early as 1493. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in a herbal written in 1544 by an Italian physician and botanist who suggested that a new type of aubergine/ eggplant had been brought to Italy that was blood red or golden color when mature and could be divided into segments and eaten like an eggplant – cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper, and oil. It was not until ten years later that tomatoes were named in print by Mattioli as pomi d’oro, or “golden apples”. Taken to Europe, the tomato grew easily in Mediterranean climates and cultivation began in the 1540s. It was probably eaten shortly after it was introduced, and was certainly being used as food by the early 17th century in Spain.

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Tomatoes were grown mainly as ornamentals early on after their arrival in Italy. For example, the Florentine aristocrat Giovanvettorio Soderini wrote how they “were to be sought only for their beauty”, and were grown only in gardens or flower beds. The tomato’s ability to mutate and create new and different varieties helped contribute to its success and spread throughout Italy. However, even in areas where the climate supported growing tomatoes, their habit of growing to the ground suggested low status. They were not adopted as a staple of the peasant population because they were not as filling as other fruits already available. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692.

 

Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590s. However, by the mid-18th century, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain, and before the end of that century, the Encyclopaedia Britannica stated the tomato was “in daily use” in soups and broths. They were not part of the average person’s diet, and though by 1820 they were described as “to be seen in great abundance in all our vegetable markets” and to be “used by all our best cooks”, reference was made to their cultivation in gardens still “for the singularity of their appearance”, while their use in cooking was associated with exotic Italian cuisine.

Botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit, a berry, consisting of the ovary together with its seeds, of a flowering plant. However, the tomato has a much lower sugar content than other edible fruits, and is therefore not as sweet. Typically served as part of a salad or main course, rather than at dessert, it is considered a culinary vegetable. One exception is that tomatoes are treated as a fruit in home canning practices: they are acidic enough to process in a water bath rather than a pressure cooker as vegetables require.

Tomato plants are vines, initially decumbent, typically growing 180 cm (6 ft) or more above the ground if supported, although erect bush varieties have been bred, generally 100 cm (3 ft) tall or shorter. Tomato plants are dicots and grow as a series of branching stems, with a terminal bud at the tip that does the actual growing. When that tip eventually stops growing, whether because of pruning or flowering, lateral buds take over and grow into other, fully functional, vines. Tomato vines are covered with fine short hairs. These hairs facilitate the vining process, turning into roots wherever the plant is in contact with the ground and moisture.

The poor taste and lack of sugar in modern garden and commercial tomato varieties resulted from breeding tomatoes to ripen uniformly red. This change occurred after discovery of a mutant “u” phenotype in the mid 20th century that ripened “u”niformly. This was widely cross-bred to produce red fruit without the typical green ring around the stem on uncross-bred varieties. Prior to general introduction of this trait, most tomatoes produced more sugar during ripening, and were sweeter and more flavorful.

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Here are some to try growing: 

Garden Pearl (Determinate) – Sweet cherry tomatoes, happiest in large pots outdoors.

Marmande (Semi-determinate) – Large irregular fruits with excellent flavour, happiest grown outdoors.

San Marzano 2 (Semi-determinate) – Classic flashy Italian plum tomato, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Golden Sunrise (Indeterminate) – Distinct sweet flavour, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Red Cherry (Indeterminate) – Prolific crops of sweet ‘cherry toms’ happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Tigerella (Indeterminate) – Good flavour and novel stripes on the skin, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Sungold F1 (Cherry) – Attractive golden fruits with a very high sugar content balanced with some acidity, Indeterminate.

Shirley F1 – A much loved variety famed for its heavy yields of well-flavoured fruits – an outstanding hybrid.  Indeterminate.

Loretto F1 – sweet cherry sized fruits with excellent flavour and a good choice for outdoor containers. Resistance to blight is one of the major benefits of this cascading ‘bush’ tomato. Indeterminate.

Alicante F1 – One of the best for flavour and very reliable yielding a good crop of medium sized tomatoes. Indeterminate.

Ferline F1 – A top quality tomato variety producing high yields of large and tasty fruits. Trials have shown that tomato Ferline F1 has excellent resistant to blight. Indeterminate.

Indeterminate – these varieties of tomatoes are the most common and are grown as cordons (single stemmed plants with side shoots removed). They will grow very tall – sometimes taller than 2.5m in very warm conditions.

Bush/Determinate – these varieties stop growing sooner than indeterminate varieties with the stem ending in a fruit truss. They are referred to as ‘bush’ and ‘dwarf’ types (suitable as hanging basket tomatoes) and don’t require any pruning.

Semi-determinate – these are similar to indeterminate varieties (grown as cordons) only they produce shorter plants.

Types of tomatoes:

  • Beefsteak tomatoes – 10 cm (4 in) or more in diameter. Their kidney-bean shape, thinner skin, and shorter shelf life makes commercial use impractical.
  • Plum tomatoes, or paste tomatoes (including pear tomatoes), are bred with a lower water /higher solids content for use in tomato sauce for canning and are usually oblong 7–9 cm (3–4 in) long and 4–5 cm (1.6–2.0 in) diameter; like the Roma-type tomatoes.
  • Cherry tomatoes – small and round, often sweet tomatoes, about the same 1–2 cm (0.4–0.8 in) size as the wild tomato. Probably my personal favourite.
  • Grape tomatoes – are smaller and oblong, a variation on plum tomatoes.
  • Campari – are sweet and noted for their juiciness, low acidity, and lack of mealiness, bigger than cherry tomatoes, and smaller than plum tomatoes.
  • Tomberries –  tiny tomatoes, about 5 mm in diameter.
  • Oxheart tomatoes can range in size up to beefsteaks, and are shaped like large strawberries.
  • Pear tomatoes are pear-shaped and can make a rich gourmet paste.
  • “Slicing” or “globe” tomatoes are the usual tomatoes of commerce, used for a wide variety of processing and fresh eating. The most widely grown commercial tomatoes tend to be in the 5–6 cm (2.0–2.4 in) diameter range.

Heirloom tomatoes are becoming popular amongst home growers as they tend to produce more interesting and flavorful crops at the cost of disease resistance and productivity. The definition of an heirloom tomato is vague, but unlike commercial hybrids, all are self-fertile varieties that have bred true for 40 years or more.

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How to grow tomatoes

In England, we can be kind-of lucky and get some tomatoes off the vines when we grow them outside, but really it is easier to do it in a greenhouse as they will prefer warmer growing conditions.

Tomato seed is normally sown 6-8 weeks before the last frost date (March/April) although they can be sown earlier for greenhouse cultivation. Sprinkle your tomato seed thinly on the surface of good quality seed compost. Cover the seed with about 1.5mm (1/16in) of compost and water lightly with a fine-rose watering can. If only a few plants are required sow two seeds into a 7.5cm (3in) pot and after germination remove the smaller plant. The seeds generally germinate in about 7 to 14 days at a temperature of around 21C (70F). Keep the compost moist. Pot on the tomato seedlings when large enough to handle, taking care not to touch the stem. Handle the plants by the leaves and transplant them carefully into 7.5cm (3in) pots. Take care not to expose the plants to frost, cold winds and draughts as this may kill them. Tomatoes need a lot of water and feed (high potash) to get the best fruit. Water little and often for the best results. If growing outdoors, plant approximately 45cm (18 in) between the plants and 75cm (30in) between the rows. Regularly pinching out of tomato side shoots will concentrate the plant’s energy into producing fruit.

One of the most common problems when growing tomatoes is tomato blight, which spreads quickly throughout the plant in wet weather, causing the plant to die and the fruits to decay. The symptoms are brown patches on all parts of the plant. It is much more common in tomatoes growing outside than tomatoes growing in a greenhouse.

Start picking your tomatoes as the fruits ripen and gain full colour. When frost threatens at the end of the season, lift any plants with unripe fruit on them and hang them upside down under cover.

Tomatoes contain excellent amounts of fiber, vitamins A, C (to resist infections), and K, potassium (controlling heart rate and blood pressure), and manganese. Good amounts of vitamin E (alpha tocopherol), thiamin, niacin, Vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper are other resources. In daily value, tomatoes provide 38% of what is needed in vitamin C, 30% in vitamin A, and 18% in vitamin K. Tests suggest tomatoes may be a preventive factor against prostate cancer. Lycopene flavonoid antioxidant has the ability to protect the cells even as it protects the skin from ultraviolet damage, and as a possible result, skin cancer. Lycopene in tomatoes has been proven to decrease oxidative stress and risk of osteoporosis and prevent serum lipid oxidation, thus exerting a protective effect against cardiovascular diseases. The coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid, in tomatoes, fight against nitrosamines, which are the main carcinogens found in cigarettes. The presence of vitamin A in high quantities has been shown to reduce the effects of carcinogens and can protect you against lung cancer. Tomatoes keep the digestive system healthy by preventing both constipation and diarrhoea. They also prevent jaundice and effectively remove toxins from the body.

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There are so many ways of using tomatoes and they are such a valuable crop to grow yourself. You can eat them raw, as part of a salad or cheese sandwich, cheese toasty, stuff them, cook with them to make a sauce for any dish, fry them to go with your English breakfast, sun dry them, bottle or can to make your own tinned tomatoes, always a handy thing to have at hand for a quick meal… 

Here are some recipes that use tomatoes. Plenty more on the site!

Recipe: Mushroom Tomato Risotto

Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

 

Recipe: Fried courgette-tomato sauce with spaghetti

Updated recipe: homemade pizza

Quinoa – Chicken Casserole

Recipe: Baked Potatoes and Kidney Beans

Salad – Rocket – Pasta and tinned tomatoes and rocket

Keep searching for more recipes! 

Sweet Potatoes

It will never work… but I bought two Sweet Potatoes to ‘chit’… then we used one for supper because we decided a) it won’t work, they are too difficult to chit and then keep alive in England and b) if it DID work, we didn’t want that many! They were giant… 

Sweet Potatoes are famously difficult to grow in England because of our bad weather in comparison to South America or Africa where they thrive. We should really stick to our normal potatoes, which is fine by me because I think they go with more meals, but it is fun to try out these new vegetables. Despite its name and look, sweet potatoes are nothing like potatoes. They taste different, are from a different family etc. They are a completely different vegetable hence why we decided we might as well give it a go and try growing one despite the odds being pretty much stacked against us! If you buy your sweet potatoes to grow properly online (which is probably better than me getting one from the market, this process has a very poor succession report) then they will arrive often as plug-plants to make things easier. Read on to find out some interesting history, nutrition and how to grow facts about sweet potatoes, as well as a yummy recipe at the bottom… 

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Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a dicotyledonous plant that belongs to the morning glory family Convolvulaceae. Its large, starchy, sweet-tasting, tuberous root are a root vegetable. They are also known as yams (although the soft, orange sweet potato is often called a “yam” in parts of North America, the sweet potato is botanically very distinct from a genuine yam (Dioscorea), which is native to Africa and Asia and belongs to the monocot family Dioscoreaceae), or kumara. Sweet potatoes are only distantly related to potatoes, they aren’t from the same ‘family’ but that family is part of the same taxonomic order as sweet potatoes, the Solanales. Although the sweet potato is not closely related botanically to the common potato, they have a shared etymology. The first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes were members of Christopher Columbus’ expedition in 1492. Later explorers found many cultivars under an assortment of local names, but the name which stayed was the indigenous Taino name of batata. The Spanish combined this with the Quechua word for potato, papa, to create the word patata for the common potato. The first record of the name “sweet potato” is found in the Oxford English Dictionary, 1775.

The plant is a herbaceous perennial vine. It bears alternate heart-shaped or palmately lobed leaves (sometimes eaten as a green) and medium-sized flowers. The edible tuberous root is long and tapered, with a smooth skin. The colour ranges between yellow, orange, red, brown, purple, and beige. Its flesh ranges from beige through white, red, pink, violet, yellow, orange, and purple. Sweet potato cultivars with white or pale yellow flesh are less sweet and moist than those with red, pink or orange flesh.

The origin and domestication of sweet potato is thought to be in either Central America or South America. In Central America, sweet potatoes were domesticated at least 5,000 years ago. In South America, Peruvian sweet potato remnants dating as far back as 8000 BC have been found. The sweet potato was grown in Polynesia before western exploration. Sweet potato has been radiocarbon-dated in the Cook Islands to 1000 AD, and current thinking is that it was brought to central Polynesia around 700 AD, possibly by Polynesians who had traveled to South America and back, and spread across Polynesia to Hawaii and New Zealand from there. Sweet potatoes are cultivated throughout tropical and warm temperate regions wherever there is sufficient water to support their growth. Due to a major crop failure, sweet potatoes were introduced to China in about 1594. The growing of sweet potatoes was encouraged by the Governor Chin Hsüeh-tseng (Jin Xuezeng). Sweet potatoes were introduced as a food crop in Japan, and by 1735 was planted in Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune’s private garden. It was also introduced to Korea in 1764. Sweet potatoes became popular very early in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, spreading from Polynesia to Japan and the Philippines. They are featured in many favorite dishes in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and other island nations. Uganda (the second largest grower after China), Rwanda, and some other African countries also grow a large crop which is an important part of their peoples’ diets. The New World, the original home of the sweet potato, grows less than three percent (3%) of the world’s supply. Europe has only a very small sweet potato production, mainly in Portugal.

The plant does not tolerate frost. It grows best at an average temperature of 24 °C, abundant sunshine and warm nights. Not really suited to the UK. Annual rainfalls of 750–1,000 mm (30–39 in) are considered most suitable, with a minimum of 500 mm (20 in) in the growing season. The crop is sensitive to drought at the tuber initiation stage 50–60 days after planting, and it is not tolerant to water-logging, as it may cause tuber rots and reduce growth of storage roots if aeration is poor.

Unlike normal potatoes, sweet potatoes are grown from ‘slips’. These are the long shoots that have been removed from ‘chitted’ sweet potato tubers. ‘Slips’ don’t have roots, although sometimes there are signs of small roots beginning to appear. The roots will grow once the ‘slip’ has been planted. Whilst it is possible to grow your own ‘slips’ from supermarket sweet potatoes, most supermarket varieties are not sufficiently hardy to grow well in the UK so crops are likely to be disappointing.

When they arrive the ‘Slips’ will look withered, but place them in a glass of water overnight and they will quickly recover. The next day you can plant them up individually into small pots of multi-purpose compost. When planting sweet potato slips, it’s important to cover the whole length of the stem, so that it is covered right up to the base of the leaves. Sweet potato plants are not hardy so you will need to grow them on in warm, frost free conditions for 3 weeks or more until they are established. Warm, humid conditions will quickly encourage the slips to produce roots. They will most likely need to be grown completely inside a greenhouse in the UK climate in large pots filled with good compost and lots of feeding. Sweet potatoes have a vigorous growth habit and long sprawling stems. In the greenhouse it may be useful to train the stems onto strings or trellis to keep them tidier.

Varieties to consider:

‘Georgia Jet’ – considered to be particularly reliable.

‘T65’ – its red skins contrast nicely with the creamy, white flesh.

‘Beauregard Improved’ – a best selling variety, producing smaller tubers with a lovely salmon-orange flesh.

‘O Henry’ – richly flavoured, has a slightly different, bushier habit than other varieties and produces it’s tubers in a cluster which makes for easier harvesting.

Sweet potatoes can be used soon after harvesting, but they will store well for several months if the skins are cured properly. Lay them out in the sun for a few hours immediately after harvesting and then move them to a warm, humid place for 10 days – a greenhouse is ideal. Once the skins have cured they can be stored in cooler conditions provided that they are kept dry. In late summer, approximately 12 to 16 weeks after planting, the foliage and stems start to turn yellow and die back. Now is the time to start harvesting sweet potatoes, although they can be left longer if you prefer larger tubers. If outdoor grown, lift them before the frosts or they will be damaged.

Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene). They are also a very good source of vitamin C, manganese, copper, pantothenic acid and vitamin B6. Additionally, they are a good source of potassium, dietary fiber, niacin, vitamin B1, vitamin B2 and phosphorus.

Sweet potatoes can replace a normal potato in any recipe, but they do have a slightly sweeter taste so some things might not go with it as much (I can’t quite picture my all-time favourite baked potato and baked beans being quite the same with the sweet potato). I’ve had sweet potato stews that were yummy, curried sweet potato recipes are out there, sweet potato salads, baked and stuffed with humous, tofu, lentils, coronation chicken, ham, bacon, eggs. We’ve seen the sweet potato brownies and muffins and breads (have not tried any of these, I must admit). I like them boiled with greens and cheddar cheese – they go very well with cheese. In fact, the best meal that includes sweet potato that I have had is Cauliflower-Sweet Potato-Cheese. Now that is a good combination. And here is a recipe:

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Cauliflower-Sweet Potato-Broccoli-Cheese

(Serves 6) 

  • 1 large cauliflower
  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1 large broccoli

For the cheese sauce: 

  • 7g butter
  • 1/2-1tbsp plain flour
  • 300g-400g grated cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 pint of milk
  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Rinse and cut up the cauliflower into pieces. Peel and cut up the sweet potato into small chunks. Put both in the pan of water and reduce the heat to low. Boil for 5 minutes before rinsing and cutting up the broccoli and adding it. Boil for about another 5 minutes or until all the vegetables are cooked.
  2. To make the cheese sauce: Put the butter in a saucepan over a high heat to melt. Add the flour, stirring. Take off the heat and stir until combined. Add the milk, a little at a time, stirring. Warm it up over a high flame, stirring. Wait until it bubbles, then turn it down and let it simmer, so it is a thick sauce. Turn of the heat and stir in the cheese a little at a time until dissolved.
  3. Turn the grill onto high or the oven to about 180C.
  4. In a large ovenproof dish, scrape the drained vegetables into the bottom and scrape the cheese sauce over the top. Scatter extra grated cheddar on top, if you would like to have a crispy topping. Place under the grill or in the oven and cook until it is brown on top (it will be a few minutes under the grill, longer in the oven).
  5. Serve hot, with more vegetables like peas or runner beans if you would like.

My other favourite variation is Cauliflower-Potato-Courgette-Broccoli-Cheese. Yum. 

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The MIGHTY Potato

I do love potatoes. I love cooking with them. Eating them. But I particularly love to grow them. They can be easy to grow and take care of themselves quite well as long as they get space, food and water – and you keep your fingers crossed that the blight will miss you or will hit your crops in August rather than May or June.

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The potato, the perennial Solanum tuberosum, is the world’s fourth largest food crop, following rice, wheat, and maize. The potato’s cultivation in South America my span back 10,000 years but tubers do not keep well in archeological recordings and therefore precise identification of those that have been discovered is difficult. However, the earliest finding was found on the coastal sight of Ancon, central Peru, dating 2500 BC. Potatoes provided the Inca Empire as a principle energy source, perhaps their predecessors and the Spanish successors too. At 10,000 feet altitude, occupants of Peru could freeze the potatoes and preserve them as a food source, turning them into ‘chuno’. The Spanish fed chuno to silver miners during the 16th century that funded their country.

The Spanish Conquistadors carried the potato to Europe. Sailors of Basque’s families began to cultivate the crop along the Biscay coast of northern Spain. Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with bringing potatoes to Ireland in 1589 where they were established near Cork. It took nearly four decades for the vegetable to spread across the rest of Europe.

The Spanish army spread potatoes amongst the peasants where they went. To begin with, the vegetable took up so much space on land that was reserved for livestock that potatoes were restricted to garden growers rather than fields. It was in the 1700s that the French and German governments and noble landowners promoted the rapid conversion of fallow lands into potato fields. They had discovered that potatoes were easier to grow in a European climate rather than wheat or oats during the ‘Little Ice Age’ where temperatures rapidly dropped – potatoes continued to grow when other staple crops failed. Famines during the 1770s also contributed to their rise in popularity. Thus, the potato became an important staple crop in northern Europe. By the 19th century, the potato had replaced the turnip as the most popular crop to harvest.

The potato had three main advantages during the 19th century: it had a lower rate of spoilage, its bulk satisfied hunger and it was cheap. In England, potatoes were popular for the urban workers to grown in their backyards for an inexpensive source of food. The potato became equal to iron in its ‘historically revolutionary role’ (Friedrich Engels).

In Ireland, the expansive potato production was due to landless labourers renting tiny plots of ground from land owners who were interested in raising cattle and grain for market. A single acre of potatoes and the milk of one cow was considered enough to feed a whole family in a rural population. However, in the 1840s a major outbreak or potato blight swept through Europe after originating from the Americas. A lack of genetic diversity, especially in Europe, from the low number of varieties left the crop vulnerable to disease. The blight destroyed potato crops all over Europe but the damage done to Ireland where the working class relied on potatoes was significantly awful as their main food staple disappeared in 1845. The Lumper potato that was widely cultivated in Ireland before the strike of disease yielded large crops but was poorly resistant to blight. Dependence on the Lumper turned to disaster. The Irish Famine led to approximately a million deaths due to starvation and disease that attacked the weekend bodies that were lacking in nutrition due to the sudden reduction of food. There was a massive emigration to Britain, the US and Canada during this time and did not start to settle until the beginning of the 20th century after around a million had left.

Blight remains an ongoing problem in Europe and the US. During the crop year of 2008, many potatoes certified as organic were sprayed with copper pesticide to control potato blight. On analysis, these potatoes contained a low value of pesticide residue but the highest amongst the fifty vegetables analysed.

There is not much one can do with blight, only grow early varieties to try to beat the inevitable disease. Blight strikes when it is hot and moist, usually in late summer like August when we seem to get a period of high rainfall (hence my fears for this years wet summer weather after such a dismal June). The disease causes the potatoes to rot. The tell-tale signs are dark blotches on the leaves. At the first sign, cut away the foliage and burn, do not compost as the disease is airborne. Try and leave the infected plant in the ground for a couple of weeks to allow the skins to mature and hope that when you lift the potatoes, they have developed enough to be eatable and have not rotted down to mush.

Other problems one might encounter when grown potatoes are potato beetles and moths that spread infections to the plant. Another is the potato cyst nematode, a microscopic worm that thrives on the root and causes the plants to wilt. Its eggs can survive in the soil for year, hence the importance of crop rotation. The other is potato scab – just peel your potatoes well. The same attitude should be taken for slightly green potatoes that have been exposed to light: peel and cut the green areas out before eating unless all of the potato is green. Then I am afraid you will have to discard it.

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When growing potatoes, I like to class them as First Earlies, Second Earlies and Maincrop varieties and generally plant them in that order.

I dig a trench – it doesn’t need to be too deep, about one or two stabs with a spade will do – and fill it with well-rotted manure and soil before applying a good layer of mulch over the top to hold in the nutrients and moisture. Potatoes love a well-fed and watered bed with acidic soil. Potato scab is more of an issue in alkaline soil.

‘Chitting’ is nice and easy. Place the potato tubers you are going to plant in a dry, cardboard holder. We use our multiple of egg boxes or those cardboard containers they stock yoghurt containers in at supermarkets (I shamefully buy trays worths when I go for my breakfast). Leave the container on a windowsill in the light during early spring. The seed potatoes develop nodules, or chits. These are the beginning of new growth. When you have two or three chits, you can start planting.

To plant once chitted (as early as February or March they can start going in), dig a hole in your prepared trench or bed, 10 cm down for Earlies, 20cm for others. Place your potato in, chits up, and infill, forming a small mound so you can recognise the spot where your new shoots will start coming through. Leave 30cm gaps between each plant. It is a good idea to place some fleece or another cover over the top if you are planting them out early on in the year and the frosts are still around when the leaves start to grow – frost will damage the leaves and slow down the growth of the crop. As the green leaves start to grow, it is traditional to ‘earth up’. You rake up the surrounding soil to create a ridge along the line of the potatoes. It is to stop the light from reaching the top few potatoes that might show above the soil. Otherwise, they turn green and become inedible. Our ‘earthing up’ involves us putting a circle of well-rotted manure around the plant on top of more soil and then applying another layer of mulch. This feeds the plant at the same time in our sandy soil. Potatoes will benefit from a liquid feed very couple of weeks if you can get round them all. Pinch out the flowers as they appear to increase your yield.

To harvest, lift First and Second Earlies as you need them, starting from perhaps May or June. These are the traditional boiling potatoes, think of those tiny Jersey New potatoes we eat with a crisp salad on a summer’s evening.

Maincrop potatoes, our nice, big, baking ones, should be ready for lifting sometime in July or most likely August. Place the potatoes on newspaper to dry, turning them over to make sure both sides are dealt with. Store them in hessian sacks in a dark space. We use our cupboard under the stairs where it is quite cold as well as dark.

We discovered last year that even after all the plants contracted blight (quite late) the potatoes still kept better when left in the ground than stored in our house. We planted so many potatoes that we continued to dig them up in perfect condition into the new year, even after frosts. The leaves had died and gone but the fully grown potatoes still remained. We dug up the last in January meaning we were eating freshly dug up potatoes I had harvested on Christmas Day and Boxing Day morning as well and New Years Eve’s roast dinners we annually hold for relatives. This year, we will not be digging up the potatoes in a rush, we will be taking them when we require them as the year goes on as I really believe they store better in the ground. As long as you follow crop rotation and ensure that you did up all of the potatoes you plant each year before the new growing season to avoid ‘volunteer potatoes’ that can harbour blight, then you should be fine.

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Now there are around 4000 varieties of potatoes but we have bred standard, well-known ones, resulting in around 80 types being available in the UK.

Earlies I have tried and loved: Swift, Red Duke of York, Charlotte, Foremost, Epicure

Main crops: Picasso (my favourite for baking with), Sarpo Mira, Sarpo Nero, Desiree, Sarpo Blue Danube

There are of course plenty of others, especially popular varieties like Kind Edwards. Try and test as any as you like Sarpos are popular types as they are supposedly more blight resistant.

In 2013, it was reported that about 368 million tonnes of potatoes were produced worldwide. Two-thirds were for human consumption, the rest divided for animal fodder and use as starch. In October 1995, the potato was the first vegetable to be grown in space.

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Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, assisting our immune systems as well as many bodily functions. They are considered on of the best sources of potassium (they have more than a banana), vital for normalizing blood pressure and transmitting nerve impulses and helping muscles contract. One medium potato with the skin contributes 8% of our daily fibre intake that may help reduce cholesterol. They are a good source of B6, helping our bodies make nonessential amino acids needed to make various proteins, required for the synthesis of haemoglobin, an essential component of red blood cells. One medium-sized potato provides 6% of our daily recommended intake of iron. Another major component of haemoglobin that carries oxygen to all parts of the body, iron also has a critical role within cells assisting in oxygen utilisation, enzymatic systems, especially for neural development, and overall cell function everywhere in the body. The protein in potatoes is approximately 3g per serving. When combined with another protein source, like cheese or beans, potatoes are an excellent meal for someone who does not eat meat and relies on plant-based proteins.

For culinary purposes, varieties are often differentiated by their waxiness. Floury, or mealy (baking) potatoes have more starch (20–22%) than waxy (boiling) potatoes (16–18%). Potatoes can be cooked in many ways: boiled, baked, microwaved, mashed, roasted, fried, made into chips, dried into crisps… Personally, I love a good baked potato with a crispy skin, mashed with butter with perhaps some cheddar cheese sprinkled on top alongside a salad, or baked beans, peas or runner beans. Cut in half, microwaves and then at the last-minute placing strips of cheese on top, microwave them again until the cheese has melted and then serving the halfs with baked beans was another childhood supper. Otherwise, I like mine boiled, my brother likes his mashed with butter and a little milk, my sister adores them roasted.

I will be sharing plenty of potato recipes but to begin with, here is one I discovered earlier this year. It was after I had made Red Bean and Potato Moussaka ( Books – Cookery). One of my favourite parts of the dish were the par-boiled potatoes on top with the melted, browned cheese. I thought that it would be delicious as a meal on its own, like a different version of Potato Dauphinoise. We tried it and it was simple and delicious with either cooked vegetables (warming winter meal) or a salad (light and crunchy summer meal). This can be done with early potatoes or main crop ones cut into chunks.

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Potato Cheese Bake

(Serves 6)

– 75g butter – 900g (1kg) potatoes, peeled and sliced  -300g cheddar cheese, grated                 – Salad to serve with (lettuce, cucumber, spinach, watercress, rocket, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, beetroot…) or cooked vegetables (peas, runner beans, broad beans, boiled carrots, kale, cabbage…)

  1. Preheat oven 200C or put the grill on high.
  2. Bring a large pan to the boil. Add the potatoes and allow to simmer until cooked. To check that they are done, stick a fork into a potato and hold it above the pan. If it slides off easily, then it is cooked. If it remains stuck on, leave it to cook a little longer.
  3. Drain the potatoes and spread a layer over a long, oblong ovenproof dish. Cut the butter into chunks and mix into the potatoes in the dish. Scatter a thick layer of cheddar cheese over the top.
  4. Put the dish in the oven or under the grill to cook until the cheese had melted and turned brown on top. Under the grill this will take approximately 10-15 minutes, but keep an eye on it just in case as the time will vary. In the oven, this will take longer, perhaps even up to half an hour. Again, keep an eye on it.
  5. Serve with salad or cooked vegetables.

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