Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Heritage vegetable review
Potato: Shetland Black



Age: unknown, but probably early 1900s
Background: Native to the Shetland Isles. Traditionally said to have been picked up in 1588 from a Spanish Armada shipwreck, but there's no firm evidence of its existence before the 1920s.
Supplier: not readily available as seed tubers, except from Alan Romans
Pros: sturdy, quirky, colourful and full of substance
Cons: chewy skin and dry flesh won't appeal to everyone

Have you ever tried searching for buried sheep turds in a mound of soil? No, I thought not. But you'll at least get an idea of what that feels like if you grow Shetland Black potatoes. Because that's exactly what its tubers most resemble at harvest time. They are unfortunately so well camouflaged against the soil it can make harvesting quite a long and laborious task. It's very easy to put a fork or trowel right through them without seeing them until it's too late.

But once you've found them all and given them a scrub up, they look very handsome. The intense purple you see in the photo above only lasts for a short time after harvest, before maturing to a dull dark purple-black ... or more precisely a brown-black outer skin with a purply glow coming through from underneath. It is a rough-edged beauty and the skins are netted and covered in pale brown freckles, some of which are large enough to be more like little corky patches, but they are attractively different nonetheless.

They look quite groovy at planting time too because their sprouts are a glossy jet black, very distinctive and unusual. Once they're planted and the foliage starts to develop they look more normal and potato-like, but still with some dark colouring in the stems. Flowers are mauve and white, but this is another potato that only flowers when it feels like it and tends to be a bit half-hearted about it.



I grew two batches of Shetland Black in 2007. Although it's billed as a Second Early, the first lot I planted very early, in March when there was still a lot of frost about. I wasn't sure they'd survive in the frozen ground, but they just bided their time and came up when they were ready. The crop was trouble free and I got an early harvest of fine potatoes. The second batch started off well but when the blight came it totally massacred the crop in no time at all. The 2007 blight was exceptionally bad, but even so Shetland Black had no defence against it at all.

Yield wise, Shetland Black doesn't produce massive amounts, but it's about average for a heritage potato. The tubers are also smaller than a modern variety, and a slightly erratic shape, kind of oval but often thin at one end and bulbous at the other. When you cut the tuber open, the flesh inside is a pale creamy yellow colour with a ring of purple. The purple ring is more pronounced in some tubers than others. It looks beautiful raw but sadly the colour doesn't survive the cooking process. The purple in both the ring and the skin becomes a murky grey-brown. There's also a slight darkening of the flesh with this variety, which some people find offputting although it doesn't in any way affect the eating quality. It's quite a common thing in heritage potatoes, but we've all got unused to it because the supermarkets have focused on providing us with varieties bred to stay perfectly white after cooking.



There are several ways of cooking Shetland Black. It's a very floury potato, and quite a dry-fleshed one at that. You can boil it, if you don't mind the result being a bit grey and murky-looking, and possibly slightly disintegrated. My husband (who does the Sunday dinners in our house) recommends boiling them for no more than 15 minutes. Baking or roasting is much better, and it makes especially lovely roasties. I should point out that I absolutely never peel potatoes, so I can't vouch for what it's like if you boil or roast it without its skin. The dryness of the flesh means you'll probably want to eat it with gravy or some other source of moisture. This variety also has an exceptionally thick skin. Again this is a common trait in these older potatoes, but Shetland Black is thicker skinned than most and takes a bit of chewing.

The flavour is quite subtle, with the rich earthiness of a typical heritage potato but not as strong as some. It's a very good flavour, but rather mild. However it is very good at absorbing flavours from sauces and gravy, so that helps.

Overall, Shetland Black is great if you want a proper old-fashioned potato with plenty of substance to it. Not so good if you want something dainty for a salad. It's tough, rugged, eccentric and not hugely versatile, but if you don't mind its little quirks you'll find it's full of its own character. I certainly like it enough to keep growing it. It's as sturdy and rugged as a fisherman's woolly jumper, and just what you would expect from a spud belonging to the beautiful windswept Shetland islands, so far north of northern Scotland.

I've found that home-grown Shetland Black tastes better than shop-bought, but if you're in any doubt about whether this spud is for you it might be worth buying some to try first. It's available in Waitrose, possibly the only UK supermarket which supplies and promotes quirky heritage potatoes, but they only sell it when it's in season (autumn and winter) so grab some while you can!

Until recently this rare variety was only available to gardeners in the form of microplants, but things are improving and potato hero Alan Romans is now offering them as seed tubers. Hooray!

19 comments:

friary said...

Rebsie, great to read your posts again and thanks for letting me know you are back! Roll on 08. I'll let you know what I think of the Taiwan Sugar Peas

Joanna said...

I love these potatoes, although I've only ever tasted shop-bought (three cheers for Waitrose, hip hip ...)

On New Year's Eve I bought the last two packets in the Henley Waitrose, and intend to plant out one of them ... it strikes me that, with so few grown in this country, the same people are growing them for seed as for the table ... but maybe you know better? I'd like to hear your views

Joanna

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Thanks John!

Hi Joanna. I'd say an emphatic yes, go ahead and plant the ones you bought in Waitrose. Not everyone would agree with me about that, and it's widely considered a no-no to plant supermarket potatoes, but I've been doing it myself for years and have not had any problems. My Shetland Black stock originally came from Waitrose.

You're right, the stock sold in Waitrose is almost certainly sourced from the same farmer(s) as the seed tubers. I know Alan Romans is the person responsible for getting Shetland Black into Waitrose, as well as selling the seed on his website. (In fact just about every heritage potato you see making a comeback is a direct result of Alan's efforts.)

As far as my understanding goes, there are two reasons why seed tubers are preferable to supermarket stock. One is that seed tubers sold in the UK are usually certified virus free, while 'food' potatoes aren't. That doesn't mean that food potatoes are necessarily full of viruses, only that they can't be guaranteed not to be. The certification process costs money, which is why seed tubers are a bit more expensive. It's not legal to sell seed tubers in the EU unless they're certified virus free, and the main reason for that is to protect commercial crops. Theoretically a virus could spread from contaminated garden potatoes and devastate agricultural crops.

The other disadvantage of supermarket stock is that it hasn't been stored in ideal conditions for planting. Unlike seed tubers, which are hardened off to trigger natural dormancy, they may have been treated with a chemical sprout-suppressant. Even if they haven't, they will probably have been kept in cold storage to force them to stay dormant. Then when they're bagged up in polythene and put into a warm brightly lit supermarket they sprout like mad. That's why shop-bought potatoes don't keep for long after you've bought them and usually start sprouting so quickly. It's not a problem if you buy them at the right time of year and can plant them before they go soggy.

Yours should be fine, just set them upright in a cool place and let them sprout.

As I say, a lot of people think that planting 'food' potatoes is a bad idea, and although there are good reasons for not doing it, my personal view is that it's more important for a rare variety like Shetland Black to be kept alive and thriving in people's gardens. Better to plant it when it's available than not at all. Garden centres will only sell seed of the bog standard commercial varieties. Rare heritage potatoes are not often available as seed tubers, so you have to source them where you can and accept some risk of viruses.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to let you know that I just stumbled across your blog, and *love* it! I'm just starting out gardening, and it's very inspiring. The long, detailed entries really make satisfying reading.

A Red Robin said...

Hello, I just found on accident your interesting blog and the Shetland News on line. I was wondering why there are no trees or so very few trees in/on Shetland. Since there is plenty of rain & good temperature for it, why don't they plant a lot of nice pine trees. I did see a photo of a beautiful garden in Shetland. Please forgive my ignorance I have never been to Shetland...just very interested in reading about your potatoes! Thank you & best regards to Daughter of the Soil and the good folks of Shetland from Lake Arrowhead in Southern California...R. Brown

Anonymous said...

I'm just about to plant my first Shetland blacks bought in Waitrose and now sprouting nicely. Wish me luck

Mal's Allotment said...

Revisiting after digging up and eating. I think you must have scrubbed your potatoes VERY hard Rebsie. Here's a link to how mine turned out (alongside some Arran Victory and Edzell Blues http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_r6Lc4AWKzbE/SoboNZDH5cI/AAAAAAAAANo/wa5mJ5G77OU/s1600-h/Potato+039.JPG

I'll own up, I peeled them. They tasted delicious but the internal colouring was a bit offputting to the uninitiated.

Thanks for the fabulous gen.

Mal

Mal's Allotment said...

Hmm, maybe this will work:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/41673094@N08/3834175925/in/photostream/

or click on name hyperlink

Daniel said...

Hi Rebsie

I am a publisher of a Swiss Gardening Homepage and just came across your interesting article re Shetland Blacks. If possible we would like to syndicate this article on our website (of course with a link back to your site and your copyright remarks). Would be great to hear from you: redaktion[at]thegardener.ch

Regards,
Daniel

Nicky B said...

I planted my blacks out in early may and they're huge plants now, but no sign of any flowers. How will I know when they are ready for harvest?

Thanks
Nicky
:-)

John said...

Hi Rebsie, great Shetland Black article and photos - says it all.

I grew some this year with good results. The colour of the newly dug tubers is fantastic - look great mixed in a basket with Sharps Express and red Duke of York. The purple spuds taste a bit bland when cooked - particularly when compared with the latter varieties but I think the flavour may well improve on storage.

John

Jon said...

Hi Rebsie,

Shame on me, I'd not been checking on your blog after everything fell silent last year! And now I see you're back. Hurrah.

How did the 'real' Shetland Blacks grow for you? And did you have any success with the Foula Reds? I have both still on the go up here, so if you want fresh tubers to play with, just let me know. (I hope you've still got my email).

Kind regards,

Jon

Barrie said...

Re Shetland Blacks
We still grow them here, usually as a maintainance crop. About 1/4 of my tattie patch; and so do neighbours. I found your blog whilst looking for a photo to send to the BBC to show them that black spuds are not new. They do taste good!

Paul said...

We have just grown some on the Food From The Sky project to sell in Budgens supermarket below, Crouch End London.

See the story here: http://bit.ly/iiMdRN

Anonymous said...

I planted one of the Waitrose Shetland Black's that I had left over earlier this year.

There were no problems at all, I've just had a lovely crop of gorgeous potatoes from it!

linda said...

We grew shetland blacks this year-they didnt flower and are uneven in size but the weather has not been kind to gardeners this year. They break up very easily when cooked-we've boiled and steamed but will try roasting next. We bought ours from Stewart Gardenlands, Christchurch, Dorset. And we LOVE them-certainly grow them next year!

Anonymous said...

I have just tried the black potato`s i bought them in Morrisons in weymouth dorset, i could not read what it said about the potato`s as never had my glasses , so i am presuming they can only be shetland black,i boiled mine , they went from a purple to a blue green , looked really odd , but i ate them, same texture as white potato`s possibly buy them again just to show family & friends ..

Anonymous said...

Shearers shop in Victoria St, Kirkwall, Orkney, list them in their extensive catalogue of seed potatoes. Don't know if they do mail order.

Roger Randle said...

Grew them this year in our garden (an ex tattie rig and kale yard) in Yell and they did very well. just harvested masses from two small bags of seed tatties. they went in in early May - we garden late up here! Bought the seed tatties from Planticrub in Lerwick though they had to get them from their Tingwall place. Our soil is almost pure peat with added seaweed and they thrive. Not sure they would do so well down in the loamy south. It's the old gardening story - horses for courses I suppose.