Sybil Kapoor sings the praises of her favourite farmers’ market stall, The Potato Shop—a source of expertise, bonhomie and extraordinary spuds
Words: Sybil Kapoor
Images: Orlando Gili
Stepping into Marylebone’s farmers’ market on a Sunday morning, it’s easy to miss The Potato Shop, hidden behind a gaggle of people eyeing up the neatly arranged crates of potatoes as they wait their turn in the queue. You are more likely to spot the ginger curls and cheerful expression of Steve Whitehead than you are the potatoes he deftly sells to his customers.
Draw closer and you will find that potato varieties and their natural attributes are a matter for serious discussion here. No one is deluded into thinking that one spud is much like another. Quite the opposite—it takes time to choose the right variety. This stall is like an unofficial meeting place for potato-lovers, and many feel the urge to discuss the relative merits of different varieties. I’ve found myself ardently advocating to complete strangers the sheer sweet deliciousness of mayan golds.
“They make amazing oven-chips—just toss them in olive oil, sliced and unpeeled, then roast for 40 minutes or so in a hot oven,” I confide, before biting my lip, fearful at the thought that I might cause a shortage. This is, after all, my only known source. (When I have to do without these ultra-sweet potatoes for a month or two each summer, until the new crop has been harvested, I usually console myself with the slightly fluffier, ultra-potato-tasting wiljas.)
Other customers listen intently to the surrounding conversation, before discussing with Steve what to purchase. If ever a man could read your taste in potatoes, it is he. Speaking with a soft Kentish burr, he establishes what you want to cook and which potato varieties you normally eat before imparting any recommendation. Such enquiries are essential, given that he sells around 34 different varieties.
Potatoes are categorised in a number of ways. First by their season, as in earlies, second earlies and maincrop. Common commercial varieties are often differentiated from older or specialty strains—for example, the creamy-fleshed cara (good for baking), a widely-grown potato that dates back to 1976, is separated from knobbly lumper potatoes, which first appeared around 1800 and are rarely sold these days (both available here). Lumpers were the mainstay of the Irish potato plantings during the catastrophic 1845-50 famine and, according to Alan Wilson in his book The Story of the Potato (essential reading for any potato enthusiast), are not a flavoursome variety.
Most commonly, potatoes are categorised by their culinary characteristics, including skin colour, flesh colour and cooked texture. The latter ranges from the waxy smoothness of rattes, to the ultra-dry, crumbly consistency of king edwards. Silken-fleshed, chestnut-flavoured rattes, for example, are perfect for salads, especially when dressed with olive oil or mayonnaise, whereas the dry nature of a king edward is ideal for fluffy mashed potatoes, as it will absorb as much butter and milk as you care to add.
You might think that buying some creamy-fleshed nicola potatoes or red-skinned, medium-dry desirées from The Potato Shop is no different to buying the same from a supermarket—but you’d be wrong. Bite into a soft chunk of market-bought nicola in an onion potato frittata or eat a forkful of desirée boulangère and you’ll be struck by their intense flavour. It’s the closest you can come to eating home-grown potatoes without actually going out and digging the soil yourself.
“All the potatoes are from Morghew Park Estate, grown on the sandy loam of what was once the old bed of the River Rother,” Steve explains. The farm follows a traditional five-year crop rotation, with winter cereals and oil seed rape to limit the risk of potato pests and diseases. In the summer the fields turn purple, white and mauve with the potato flowers. During this time, The Potato Shop stall takes on a festive air, with jam jars filled with yellow-eyed potato flowers. “Forget the lavender fields in Provence; maris peers have really pretty purple flowers, worthy of any flower border,” enthuses Steve, before adding by way of a curious fact, “it’s said that Marie Antoinette used to put potato flowers in her hair”—which I feel might come in handy in the potato queue.
The sheer number of specialty and heritage potatoes that the stall sells is extraordinary. You may go intending to buy a tried and tested variety, but you will no doubt find yourself tempted into trying an extra bagful of unfamiliar tatties, such as thin-skinned sieglinde or the waxy linzer delikatess. Then there are all the older varieties, such as the yellow-fleshed pink fir apple and fine-flavoured belle de fontenay. These can double up as ‘new’ potatoes and taste equally good buttered, tossed into salads or added to curries. Those of a more traditional ilk will find it impossible to resist trying aromatic, black-skinned, deep-eyed arran victory potatoes (so-named in 1918, in celebration of the end of the war), or the superlative kerr’s pink, which can be mashed, chipped, sautéed or turned into rosti potatoes.
Stalwart Kentish countryman
Steve, who was born and bred in Tenterden, looks the very image of a stalwart Kentish countryman. He combines bonhomie with exceptional potato knowledge. As David Hobbs, one of his regular customers, explains: “I have been buying from Steve for as long as I can remember him being there. We do not buy potatoes unless we buy them from him. You know you are onto someone that knows his stuff when a customer asks, ‘Can you remember what potatoes I bought last week?’ and within a couple of questions, he knows!”
It’s as though he brings a fresh Kentish breeze with him. Great bunches of wild garlic leaves and egg boxes filled with speckled guinea fowl and pheasant eggs appear alongside the potatoes in the spring, reminding his London customers of rural life, with its wellington boots, nettles and wildlife. Behind him sit one or more of his four working dogs: jack russells Lily, Fern and Charlie, and Moss, a jack russell-lakeland terrier cross. They’re an added bonus to many customers. “He always lets my son go behind the stall to see his dogs,” says David—although Steve admits that when elderly customers get down on their hands and knees to say hello to them, he worries whether they’ll be able to get up again.
As Sunday afternoon drifts by and Londoners daydream of a country life, Steve and his dogs will be driving home to Kent to the beat of the Stone Roses or Nirvana. Perhaps he will have home-grown wiljas with his supper. It’s his desert island potato.