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!