Right about now anyone reading across the pond in America, or even as close as Europe are probably scratching their heads and asking "What on earth are Jersey Potatoes?" Well, they're a luxury that only the people of Great Britain can, and probably will ever, be able to experience.
The first new potato crop of the year, Royal Jerseys and Jersey Mids start appearing on our shelves around the middle of March, and last until late June/early July, marking the start of the new potato season. All it takes is one bite to see (taste even) why they're so eagerly awaited…
In a world becomingly increasingly demarked with regard to seasonal fruit and vegetables, not many crops still have such a limited cropping period. Go to the supermarket anytime of the year and you can get strawberries, or nectarines, or raspberries, shipped in from wherever they can be grown that particular time of year. Why isn't it the same with Jersey potatoes?
This is because Jersey is the only place in the world potatoes can be grown and still called Jersey Royals. The actual potato variety is International Kidney, but thanks to the European Union and its "Protection of Designation of Origin" (PDO) status, the channel island of Jersey has exclusivity. This protection is commonly known as "Champagne Status", and Jersey Potatoes are the only vegetable crop in the UK to have this status, sharing it with the likes of stilton cheese, Cornish clotted cream, camembert cheese, and many others. For some more, see this full list.
Incredibly, more than 50% of Jerseys' total land mass is used in agriculture or horticulture, Jersey's third biggest industry after finance and tourism. 69% of the agriculture turnover is used for Jersey Royals; unsurprisingly they are the biggest crop, with tomatoes second place with 21% of export value.
Mind you, it's not as though people haven't tried to grow them elsewhere; they just won't grow, not even on the neighbouring island of Guernsey. Jersey, with its steep hillsides and mild climate enjoys mild weather earlier than anywhere else in the UK, and that along with its soil is a contributing factor to the crops' success. So where did they start?
Jersey traditionally had a history of cider production, with the island covered in famous cider orchards. By the early 1800's however this had slackened off, no doubt being replaced by French cider, and the islanders started experimenting with new potato production for export to England; they were proving to be a profitable crop.
We skip forward to the early 1880's and depending on who tells it varies slightly. A farmer named Hugh de la Haye saw two huge sprouting potatoes on a counter in a shop; one of them had 15 eyes on. He showed them to his friends at a dinner party; one story claims he split the potato between them, other versions have him planting it himself. Either way, both potatoes were planted; while one produced a good crop of round potatoes, the other produced a curious crop of superb tasting kidney shaped potatoes.
Hugh didn't mess around - within a few years they were being exported to London, and by the late 1890's, the potatoes had been nurtured, and the yearly crop of Jersey Royals would be in the region of 60,000 tonnes - this in less than 20 years, which would be no mean feat by today's standards, especially considering for all their 100 years history Jersey Potatoes have been hand planted by generations of Jersey Farmers. Even today, a good crop of Jersey potatoes is in the region of 45 thousand tonnes; about 99% of this is exported to Mainland Britain. Because it was such a profitable crop, eventually the Jersey States Department decided it was to be the only potato exported as a new potato.
Today, Jersey potatoes are still grown the same way they always have been; farmed intensively by hand, by around 90 growers. Indeed, many of the steep hill slopes or côtils the potatoes are grown on are too steep for machinery to be used. These slopes help shield the crop from frosts (potatoes are extremely susceptible to frosts), enabling the planting to start as early as January. The previous year, seed potatoes are planted at the end of February; these are usually hand selected by the farmer from his own personal stock. After three months, they are dug up and stored until November. By then, the first shoots will have appeared; these are removed, and the small tubers placed with the eyes facing upwards in chitting trays, to encourage the development of the short, fat shoots.
In November, the preparation of soil starts; many Jersey farmers use local seaweed called Vraic, which is in plentiful supply on the beaches due to Jersey's strong tidal flows; it is this seaweed that helps give Jersey's their distinctive taste, the use of which dates back to the 12th Century. The seaweed also contains a chemical that naturally suppresses a pest called eelworm, a soil borne nematode worm that can destroy potato crops.
The chatted tubers are then planted in the prepared soil in January. This is done by hand, making sure the shoots point upwards to speed up the growth. By March, the first tubers will be ready for harvest; typically, the early crops start with the "Mids"; Jersey potatoes come in two sizes, mids and royals, with royals being the larger ones, and mids being smaller, sometimes as small as a fingernail! The harvest continues until the end of June. At the height of the harvesting, 1,500 tonnes a day are harvested across the island; it comes as no surprise that the spuds count for over £20 million of Jersey's annual income, commanding a high market value; indeed, the first crops going on sale in March often fetch upwards of £6 per kilogram retail, compared with an average of £1 per kilogram of standard new potatoes.
Once the potatoes are harvested, they are immediately shipped into a packing house, where they are graded, packed and transported out. They usually arrive in Britain the next day, and can in some cases be on shelves less than 24 hours after they are harvested; a small miracle considering the length of the logistical cold chain of some supermarkets in the UK.
Not only are Jersey potatoes really tasty, but they're also excellent in terms of nutrition. They are a great source of complex carbohydrates which should make up a large part of the diet, and contain practically no fat. They are also a good source of Vitamin C; Jersey Potatoes especially so in the skin.
So next time you bite into a delicious Jersey Royal potato, think of all the effort and devotion that's gone into that particularly special potato you are eating, and you'll enjoy them even more.