Meet the Jersey Royal
The first kidney-shaped Jersey Royals that arrive in the shops around now always seem to me like little capsules of hope, banishing winter and ushering in the spring. Their sweet, earthy flavour brings promise of warm sun on the skin, tennis whites, and the aroma of freshly mown grass. Jersey Royals are here, spring has sprung.
As their name suggests, these creamy-white, waxy potatoes come from the Channel Island of Jersey, where the mild climate allows their precocious growth well ahead of mainland early spuds. They’ve been grown in Jersey since the 19th century but, like many great inventions, the potato’s beginnings were an accident – in fact its original name was Jersey Royal Fluke.
It all began with a post-ploughing supper thrown by a Jersey farmer called Hugh de la Haye in 1879. The conversation turned to spuds, and Hugh showed his guests two freakishly large potatoes he had been given. One had 15 ‘eyes’, just waiting for new plants to sprout, so he cut them up and stuck each of the eyes in the ground to see what would happen. The following spring a crop appeared, and while most of the potatoes were round, some had the characteristic kidney shape of what would later become known as the Jersey Royal.
The new spud may have been small and strangely shaped, but its wonderful taste was an instant hit both at home and on the mainland. By the late 1890s, annual exports had rocketed to nearly 67,000 tonnes. Today, exports total between 30,000 and 40,000 tonnes, because the amount of agricultural land on the island has decreased as the population has increased.
Along with milk and cream, Jersey Royals are one of the island’s gastronomic trump cards. The potato’s delicate flavour cannot be beaten or replicated – literally, as it is the only British vegetable to have coveted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, which safeguards it against imitations.
Jersey Royals (never call them Jersey Royal potatoes) are still grown on small plots in much the way they have been grown for the past 120 years, using local vraic seaweed as a natural fertiliser, which adds to the taste.
The earliest potatoes, traditionally grown on sun-drenched south-facing coastal cotils (slopes), are lifted by hand – so delicate are their skins that they must be cosseted until they reach the shops. To minimise bruising, the harvester digs under the crop and lifts the potatoes up so they are cushioned by soil.
Dougie Richardson, whose family has been growing Jersey Royals as far back as records go, and who has just been joined in his business by his 20-year-old son Alexander, says the potatoes are ideally suited to the island’s conditions. “The soil is fertile and we’re blessed with a beautifully warm climate, helped by the Gulf Stream. Best of all, the island is made up of valleys and generally slopes southwards, so the sun hits it bang on.”
Richardson, who left school at 16 to join his father growing potatoes, says Jerseys are a way of life. He plants his in early January and starts lifting them by hand in early April. The last Jerseys are harvested at the end of June, after which seed is kept for next year’s crop. Freshness is key to enjoying the Jerseys’ earthy flavour. Now that packers are established on the island, the first potatoes can hit mainland supermarkets less than 24 hours after being plucked from the earth.
Richardson advises that Jerseys should never be peeled, because their high vitamin C content resides in their delicate skins, but also because the flavour is here too. “Just rinse them under the tap and rub them between your fingers – don’t scrub as this will rupture the skin. Boil with a bit of salt for about 15 minutes, then drain them and leave them with the lid on for a few minutes.”
Richardson prefers to eat Jerseys on their own to experience their slightly nutty, sweet taste, but many people love them with a bit of butter or chopped herbs (as in our recipe, below). Above all, he says, there’s something special about eating a food that can boast of being a first. “Jersey Royals come at a time of year when people are desperate for something new. Their taste is amazing. It really is the first taste of spring.”
Jersey Royals in a mustard and honey dressing
Prep time: 20 mins
700g (1½lb) small Jersey Royals
45ml (3tbsp) clear honey
40g (1½oz) butter
10ml (2tsp) Dijon mustard
Juice of ½ lime
To garnish: 15ml (1 tbsp) chopped coriander
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add potatoes, bring back to the boil, then simmer gently for 12-15 mins or until just tender. Meanwhile, heat together the honey, butter and mustard in a small saucepan, stirring until well blended. Add lime juice. Drain cooked potatoes. Pour honey glaze over and gently toss potatoes in the saucepan until evenly coated. Serve hot or warm, garnished with chopped coriander.
Jersey Royal potato salad recipe
500g Jersey Royals, scrubbed and halved
200g asparagus spears
Four spring onions,
Two tbsp lemon juice or white wine vinegar
Four tbsp olive oil
One tsp wholegrain mustard
12 halved cherry tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Basil leaves, to garnish
1. Cook the Jersey Royals in lightly salted boiling water for 15-20 minutes, until tender.
2. While they are cooking, toss the asparagus in one tbsp of olive oil. Preheat a char-grill pan or the grill and cook the asparagus, in batches if necessary, until tender.
3. Put the spring onions into a salad bowl and add the lemon juice or vinegar, olive oil and mustard. Leave to marinate for 5-10 minutes.
4. Drain the potatoes and put them into the bowl, stirring gently to coat in the dressing. Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then add the asparagus, tomatoes and basil leaves.