Riverford Wicked Leeks

potatoes + potato bores

Wednesday 29th June 2011

At my nephew’s 21st birthday last month, my niece had prepared a wonderful potato, broad bean and mint salad. When I smugly commented on how good the potatoes were, there was an embarrassed silence followed by the admission that she had bought them elsewhere because she didn’t think our first earlies were very good. I was mortified and spent the afternoon in a sulk, and the next day trying to track down the origin and variety of the offending spuds.

We know from our limited market research that most of you rate flavour as the main reason for buying our vegboxes (ahead of the environment, lack of pesticides, convenience and support for local growers by a factor of two), so I feel justified in my nerdish pursuit of the perfect potato. The trouble with flavour is that it's subjective, hard to quantify and influenced by many factors such as variety, growing conditions, maturity at harvest and storage. Pushing crops on with too much water and nitrogen, as so frequently happens in conventional farming, definitely leads to disappointment in the kitchen.

As with all management, measurement is the first step to improvement. Most fruit and veg industry technical managers measure what can be quantified objectively (eg. sugar content, degrees of bend in a banana etc.) and ignore the rest. John, my fellow in-house veg nerd, has gone further; he has assessed the taste buds of most of our staff to come up with a ‘sensory evaluation panel’. I didn’t qualify. Every couple of weeks this elite group sit down and mull over our more contentious fruit and veg in search of consensus. We want to know what they like and why, in the hope that we can correlate this with the variety, soil, growing method, etc. Last week it was strawberries and the tasters showed extraordinary accuracy in assessing firmness, acidity and sweetness, but interestingly the most significant preference criteria were the absence of ‘soapiness’ or cardamom flavours.    

We are still arguing about potatoes. Our early varieties (mainly Ostara and Lady Crystal) are better than most, but have been variable and sometimes disappointing this year. The one consistency is the excellent but frustratingly slow-growing Charlotte (in the boxes from mid-July). Next year, spurred on by my niece, we'll chit some of the Charlotte to bring them forward a fortnight.

Guy Watson from Riverford in Devon