Root and Branch

Earthly pleasures

The thrill of digging up — and eating — the first new potatoes of the year

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Is there anything more magical than digging up home-grown new potatoes? Yes, the gluttonous gardener will respond: the first bite of creamy sweetness when you serve them up with nothing more than a curl of salty butter and a scattering of fresh herbs.

Allotments represent all manner of things to those who labour in them, from escape hatch to therapist’s couch, but for me our plot is first and foremost a larder, and June is the month that its shelves start refilling. After autumn’s digging and mulching, and spring’s weeding and feeding, the earth is ready to give back once more. It begins with those first earlies.

Our plot is first and foremost a larder, and June is the month that its shelves start refilling

Ours started out carefully nestled in egg boxes, eye up, by my daughter. We sent them to chit in my mum’s loft, from where we received weekly updates, and they went into the soil on a day of slender promise, as a brisk wind gusted cloud across a grubby sky. I’ve since done plenty of earthing up — watering, too, with April’s rainfall far below what’s still considered normal. They are now just about ready to harvest.

The most regal of new potatoes is the Jersey Royal. Kidney-shaped and creamy-white, it’s been grown on the channel island since the nineteenth century and was the result of a happy accident. In the 1870s, a farmer named Hugh de la Haye found himself in possession of an unusually large spud with 15 eyes.

He cut it up and planted it in sections, and while most of the potatoes that grew from it were round, some were small, strangely-shaped and uncommonly delicious. The Jersey Royal’s original name, appropriately enough, was the Jersey Royal Fluke. The organic Pentland Javelins I’m growing have a more conventional backstory, being bred by Scotland’s spud supremo, Dr Jack Dunnett, and supposedly boasting excellent slug-, as well as blight resistance. Because if nothing quite rivals the thrill of pulling up the first early spuds, then the moment you realise your tubers have been munched from within, leaving behind nothing but papery carapaces, is uniquely dismaying.

Wireworms, the larvae of click beetles, can also cause their share of damage. But last year, in our heavy clay soil, slugs found their way into about a quarter of my later, maincrop potatoes. The other challenge on a small plot is rotation, especially if you’re also growing tomatoes. So this year I’m curbing my appetite and have given the maincrop the chop, growing just a few earlies, the hope being that having them in the ground for a shorter spell will result in less slug damage.

Of course, I’m now sharing the plot with my mother, who’s proving uncharacteristically reticent about this particular crop. It might have to do with the season she spent picking them in her 20s. Released from art school with no guidance on how to make a living, she tied a kerchief over her hair, rolled up her sleeves and joined a gang of land workers “scrobbling” — for this is the verb, she tells me — spuds in Suffolk.

These days, harvesters gather mechanically uprooted potatoes but back then collection was done by hand, straddling the rows and scooping them into a basket as fast as possible (it was piecemeal work). The chapter gave rise to her one and only moment (so far) of direct action: when a farmer started spraying chemical defoliant while the women were on the field, she marched them off and instigated a sit-down protest.

Though the harvesting has changed, it’s a reminder of all that goes into industrial-scale food production — one that leaves the allotmenteer’s dreamy notions of self-sufficiency looking a lot like dilettantism. Feeding yourself is an endeavour far more labour-intensive than most found the time for even during lockdown.

Pulling up spuds frequently unearths inorganic matter, too, much of it the byproduct of previous gardeners’ attempts at boosting productivity. The delicate foot from a porcelain figurine that my daughter found? Along with the macabre doll’s head discovered on a neighbouring plot, it’s kept us guessing. But the endless chips of crockery were presumably used to improve drainage and the lime green bathmat whose tendrils I’m still gathering was doubtless laid as a mulch.

There are also fragments of clay pipe stems — relics of a moment’s relaxation, perhaps, for those toiling in an era when tending an allotment was an altogether more urgent business than it is for even the greediest of today’s gardeners.

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