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A look back at the history of the Jersey Royal potato

Ryan Morrison
Ryan Morrison
BBC Jersey

Jersey Royals
Royals have been grown in the island for nearly 130 years (photo Jersey Royals)

The Jersey Royal has been a part of islander's spring diet for nearly 130 years.

But this major agricultural product had something of an accidental beginning.

Francois Le Maistre from the Jersey Royal Potato Association explained that it all started from a single potato full of eyes.

"Hugh De La Haye had this round potato with 15 or 16 eyes; he and some of his friends cut the potato into pieces and planted them.

"One of the shoots came up and yielded kidney shaped rather than round potatoes.

"Because it was a fluke - one out of the 15 shoots - that's what he called it, a Jersey Royal Fluke," said Francois.

From that lucky beginning we now have a major island industry that produces up to and over 40 thousand tonnes of Royals every year.

"Seventy or Eighty years ago now we exported one year, 80 thousand tonnes, generally it has been between 40 and 50 thousand tonnes each year."

"It's still an important industry," said Francois.

On a slope

And one person that knows all about the importance of the islands potato industry is Didier Hellio - a Jersey Royals farmer.

The very early Royals are grown on a slope and Didier explained this was just so they could be picked earlier..

He said: "The very early ones are grown on a slope to get the earliness and they are hand planted and hand picked. It is very hard work but it is just to get the earliness.

"It's a labour of love and pride as well; you've got to be dedicated to do it," said Didier.

Jersey Royals
Jersey Royals have Protected Designation of Origin Status (photo Jersey Royals)

From that first crop in 1880 to a mass export industry now - all in less than 130 years but Francois le Maistre went on to explain that Royals can spread pretty quickly.

"From one seed potato, if you leave it to mature until the tubas are really mature in July you can get 20 or 30 tubers from the one seed. So it bolts up really quickly," said Francois.

Vraic

In the early days of the Jersey Royal export farmers used Vraic, or Seaweed as a fertiliser

Francois le Maistre said that the use of Vraic on Jersey Royal fields started to die out 30 or 40 years ago.

He explained this was probably because farmers stopped using the horse and cart.

"We lost the use of the horse and cart as that is how it would have been brought up from the beach over hundreds of years," said Francois.

But the use of Vraic started to have something of resurgence after the Agriculture and Fisheries Committee took action.

"Promoted the use of seaweed by employing a contractor who would go down on to the beach with his tractors and fork and he'd load up the seaweed on to farmers trailers. They would take it back to their fields," said Francois.

But, although it is still used on a number of farms around the island, Vraic isn't used on a wide scale anymore.

And even though it is freely available on the beaches, Didier Hellio explained that it does make a difference to the taste - but isn't as cheap to use as people might think and has been hard to get hold of.

"I do some of them when it is possible, it does make a little bit of a difference but Vraic and seaweed is very difficult to get hold of at the moment.

"It is expensive to use, it is cheap to get off the fields but it is an expensive job at the moment and there is less available at the moment," said Didier.

Jersey Royals Cooking Tip
Of course with Jersey Royals the proof is in the eating, Tony Dorris, the Jersey Potteries chef explained the best way to serve them was the simplest.

"Bring them to the boil with a good amount of salt; you need quiet a lot of salt to bring out the flavour.

"Drain them off, never put them near cold water, drain them off and let them rest for a couple of minutes and then fold in your butter.

"Because they're not too hot they will coat nicely in the butter and then add a little bit of mint at the end."

In the flavour

So what is it that makes Jersey Royals so special? For Jersey Potteries chef, Tony Dorris it's the flavour

"They've got a very unique flavour, to me they're very sweet, they're very unique and I haven't tasted anything else, I've been cooking for many years and I haven't tasted anything like it really," said Tony.

Tony said the best way to prepare them was to start with cold water.

"Simply boil Jersey Royals from cold, in my opinion any vegetables grown in the ground should be put into cold water, brought to the boil and then simmer gently until they are cooked."

Protected

Jersey Royals are one of just 14 British products with the European Protected Designation of Origin status.

That is the official recognition granted by the European Union to products from a specific area - such as Champagne or Melton Mowbray pork pies.

Francois Le Maistre said that this means you can't call a potato a Jersey Royal if it is not grown in Jersey.

But that doesn't mean the kidney shaped new potato bread grown originally in Jersey can't be grown elsewhere in the world

Jersey Royals
Some Royals are grown on a slope so they can be picked early. (photo Jersey Royal)

Jersey Bennies

He recalled a story of one such field in New Zealand. He described a farm north of Christchurch where they grow 'Jersey Bennies'.

"They are exactly the same as Jersey Royals, they taste the same except these are harvested in November, December.

"They were named after the Benest Variety [of Royal] which was taken over 80 years ago by Jersey people," said Francois.

Talking point

As well as being one of the islands biggest agricultural exports, between April and July they're also one of the main talking points.

One of the things you hear most often, other than complaints about not using Vraic anymore is that Royals don't taste as nice as they used to.

But Diddier Hellio doesn't think that's fair, at least not this year. He said that it was all about the vintage and this years was a particularly good one.

"Every year the weather is different, I think it has a lot to do with the weather and this year, to my mind, they are very good flavoured.

"The flavour is always there but I find this year they have a better taste, a better vintage."


Have your say
What do you think of Jersey Royals? Have they got better/worse over the years?


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YOUR COMMENTS

Alan, Stafford

Are Jersey Royal available as a seed potato for home growing. If so can you provide details of an outlet. All the garden centres etc I have tried state they are unable to obtain them.




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