Sunday 28 January 2007
Heritage vegetable review
Potato: Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy
Age: unknown but estimated around 1899
Background: apparently maintained single-handedly by a shepherd, William Little, for over 50 years. He acquired it at a horse fair in the 1940s and it's probably local to the Yetholm area in the Scottish Borders.
My supplier: home-saved tubers; microplants originally from Organic Gardening Catalogue
(NB The Organic Catalogue no longer lists this variety, but it's available direct from Alan Romans.)
Pros: unique and gorgeous three-colour skin, pretty flowers, excellent flavour, retains much colour after cooking
Cons: flesh darkens a little on cooking
There is a reason why you probably won't have seen any seed tubers of this variety for sale anywhere. It's illegal to sell seed potatoes of unregistered varieties in Europe, so obscure heritage spuds like this one never get a look in. The solution, ingeniously devised by Alan Romans (author of that little green booklet about potatoes you see in garden centres) is to sell them as ready-started plants. Or microplants to be precise, laboratory propagated and certified virus free. As I've said elsewhere on the blog, I have a few issues with microplants: they're expensive, too precious to survive without special care and it takes at least two seasons to get a full yield. But they have enabled Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy and a whole host of other rare and interesting old varieties to get out there into people's gardens and not just languish in gene banks, and for that I'm very grateful.
This potato really stands out by anyone's standards. Originating (it seems) from an area of Scotland rich in faery and Arthurian legends and a stronghold of Scottish gypsies for centuries, it has a unique colour combination of velvet purple, hot pink and cream, all swirled about in streaks and blotches like the surface of the planet Jupiter. Some tubers feature a Jupiter-style spot or eye in their pattern. When they're freshly dug and newly scrubbed up they really are breathtakingly beautiful.
Whether the variety originated in the gypsy community or whether it was bred by a local gardener, it was acquired by the Mr Little whose name it bears at a local horse fair, and he grew it for the next half century. Towards the end of his life he passed a tuber to Alan Romans whose subsequent efforts have ensured its future survival and (through his microplants project) availability to gardeners.
So ... it's taken me two seasons to get from tiddly little microplant to abundant crops of super-coloured potatoes, but it was flippin' well worth it.
One characteristic of Yetholm Gypsy is that it's slow to chit (sprout). But that can be an advantage, because it means you can leave tubers sprouting right through the summer and sow them in successive batches to extend the season. I don't actually know whether this is supposed to be a maincrop or a second early or what ... it seems to grow happily and yield well whenever I plant it. Yields are possibly slightly lower than a modern variety but not much, and the tubers are on the small side with some variation in shape, and occasional knobbly bits.
The leaves are smallish and dark green and the plants are very lanky. I mean very lanky. They grow bolt upright for a certain while and look very handsome, and then they flop over and grow leggily in all directions. So it isn't the tidiest of potatoes. But it does have very pretty mauve flowers, which if you're lucky will blossom before the rest of the foliage splats gracelessly over the floor.
The colouring in the tubers appears to be created by a thin layer of purple-blue pigment over a thin layer of pinky red pigment over creamy white flesh. Some of the streaks develop in the soil as the tuber grows. They are mostly dark blue when first harvested, and when you wash them a little of the dark blue rubs off and gives you more streaks of red and white. Then as the potato dries the colour seems to set and become permanent. It really is a most distinctive and unusual thing.
I was fully expecting the flavour to be insipid though. When you find something this wacky you can't really expect it to have a knock-out taste as well. But ... this is a very special potato and it tastes fantastic. Under its thickish skin the texture is on the waxy side and very moist, and the flavour strong, sweet and earthy. And as if that wasn't enough, it retains its colour after cooking! That's right, you can tuck into a blotchy purple red and white jacket potato and it tastes as fantastic as it looks. The colours do fade to brown if baked or roasted for long periods, but in most circumstances it keeps enough colour to make an impression on the dinner plate. It's good for boiling too, although the flesh tends to darken slightly and take on a greenish tint, which is less aesthetically pleasing.
I had read that Yetholm Gypsy has poor resistance to blight, and that nearly put me off trying it. However my crops were trouble free and even the final late summer batch was unblighted right up to the end of September, despite the stricken tomatoes keeling over all around it.
Mr Little's Yetholm Gypsy has become my joint favourite potato (along with the modern variety Marfona). I love it.