Ailsa and I were in a supermarket looking at the several types of potatoes on offer.
We started thinking that last year’s main crop potatoes, which had been overwintered to sell now, were looking rather drab and sad and unappetising. We decided to ignore the very real difference between the price of ‘new’ potatoes and the tired ‘old’ potatoes and found some genuine Ayrshires … we usually look for the county of origin and the name of the grower … bearing in mind that only potatoes grown in that county should be sold under that name, for we have seen ‘Jersey Royals’ which had been grown in Cornwall in a reputable supermarket. And, I must add in fairness, although they should have been grown on an island hundreds of miles further south than the Ayrshire potatoes we prefer, Jersey Royals are very tasty.
It was while we were going through the checkout that my wandering mind recalled the days of my childhood, when my parents … and most of our neighbours … grew our own potatoes and tried to store them to make the crop last for as many winter months as possible. Believe me, the first almost-unaffordably expensive early potatoes to reach our local Co-op were doubly welcome ’way back then!
Since my memory is no longer as reliable as it once was, I may well be mistaken about some of the details: but I think I have the general drift of the process, which began with preparing the ground. This work should have been done early in the year, all the weeds removed, the area dug thoroughly and all the larger stones removed. Ideally, lots of well-rotted organic matter from the compost heap was dug in at this stage: but our compost heap never seemed to have rotted down the previous year’s green waste in good time for this to be done. My parents’ garden was too small to allow us to change the plot in which the potatoes were grown every second year if the potatoes were to be planted where they would get as much sun as possible; and we had, of course, no option about the type of soil in the garden; the potatoes had to be grown in the soil which we had.
And again, we were usually far too late in chitting our seed potatoes by laying them out in trays or shallow boxes in a frost-free environment to let them sprout so that we could rub off all the smaller chits, leaving only the strongest shoots. Our main crop seed potatoes were more often sprouting by the time my parents bought them; and, in a manner left over after the War ended, our seed potatoes were usually cut into several pieces, each piece with only one or two chits … or ‘eyes’ … before they were planted, ideally three or four days later. Planting involved placing the pieces of potato about 18 inches apart into furrows supposedly created during the ground preparation stage, but more often created in my parents’ garden only hours … or even minutes … before the planting was done. Then the furrows were filled … the tatties were furred up, in technical language … and, essentially, the potatoes were left to get on with growing for five months or so before being lifted.
All too often the crop was rather disappointing; there were usually plenty of small potatoes but seldom any surfeit of large ones. But all were lifted, as much of the typically damp soil as possible was removed and the greater part of the crop was placed in some frost-free place to be a winter-long resource. Ah, happy days! But no, no these were not happy days. Despite the oft-proclaimed benefits of garden-produced vegetables, my memory says that even the unappealing ‘old’ potatoes in today’s supermarkets have the edge on the last of the home over-wintered potatoes of my childhood. And as for the ‘new’potatoes … aaah, yes!