Over 180 Potatoes in the AFBI varieties database– a sensory treasure waiting to be discovered!
To celebrate the International Year of the Potato AFBI scientists have written a series of articles, some providing background to the potato and others reporting some of their own work. This article is the tenth in the series and can be viewed along with the others on the website.
AFBI Crossnacreevy's Carol Hall at the recent Autumn Event held at Crawfordsburn.
In the wealthy western world we are becoming food and drink connoisseurs. Our tastes differ and, presented with an ever-increasing range of food products, we have nurtured our opinions about everything from wine and whiskey to breads and biscotti. So we have learned to distinguish between Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples, between Iceberg and soft lettuces, between Conference and William pears, between Shitaki and Oyster mushrooms. Yet carrots are carrots, red grapes are red grapes – unless they are fermented and bottled – and to a large extent potatoes are potatoes. Or are they?
Kerr’s Pink have a reputation second to none in some parts of Northern Ireland. We expect our first earliest to be Home Guard. British Queens are popular and appear in many guises. But the humble spud had untold riches to reveal to those who are adventurous enough to seek it out.
At first glance many potato varieties are not distinctive – they are white, red, or white with red or pink blotches. There is the occasional blue-skinned variety, such as Arran Victory, and even white with blue blotches, such as Kestrel. Shape varies from long to round and there are some rather intriguing shapes such as the hooked pear shape of Exquisa and the knobbliness of Pink Fir Apple. But this does not allow us to distinguish between the vast majority of white-skinned oval-shaped varieties.
When we cut open the cooked tuber the range in flesh colour will further distinguish a number of varieties. White flesh such as that of Shepody is fairly unique, we are more familiar with white-cream flesh as in Navan and the cream colour of Saxon. Traditional preferences for white to cream flesh means that yellow-fleshed varieties find it hard to gain favour in Northern Ireland. Thus Rooster with its yellow flesh is popular in the Republic of Ireland where Record, also yellow-fleshed, has traditionally been used as a table variety but hasn’t gained such a widespread appeal in Northern Ireland.
We are familiar with Record although we might not recognise it. For many years Record was the main variety used to produce crisps but Lady Rosetta and more recently Saturna have now superceded it. Only a few varieties amongst the hundreds available are suitable for this particular way for eating potatoes. They are round, so that the crisps are all circular, and they have a light colour when fried. Most other varieties fry dark and are therefore less suitable.
Thinking about table potatoes again, texture is as important as flesh colour in determining how acceptable the variety is. Dry floury potatoes are widely preferred in Northern Ireland. Waxy, soapy, wet varieties do not find favour with many of us. The tendency of the potato to break apart or disintegrate is, like texture, largely determined by the dry matter of the variety. Sunbeam, locally bred by Robin Cherry, has a high dry matter of 25%, a mealy texture and disintegrates freely. At the other end of the scale the variety Marfona, which has found a niche as a baker, has a low dry matter of 17%, is waxy and holds its shape well.
Colour and texture are only part of the story about table quality in potatoes. We’ve yet to train our taste buds to appreciate the finer points of their flavour. At AFBI Crossnacreevy our trained taste panellists identify the strength and type of off-flavours such as sweetness, bitterness and earthiness as well as assessing overall flavour and texture. With over 180 varieties in the AFBI variety database and several hundred more available throughout the EU, there is a wealth of talent waiting to be spotted by our tongues. In the same way as we’ve developed into connoisseurs of wine in recent years, potato varieties offer the opportunity to titillate our taste buds. Well maybe I’m dreaming, especially as we are so inventive in finding ways to mask the fact that they are potatoes, but for the discerning punter out there, potato varieties are a treasure waiting to be discovered.
by Dr Ethel White, AFBI Crossnacreevy