Spring into Summer

By Richard Crossley (The Crossley ID Guide Britain and Ireland) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Readers, I was sitting in the garden on Sunday when I heard what  I consider to be the first sign that spring is easing gently into summer. Way up above my head, circling in the clear blue sky, were swifts, scything through the air. Their shrill cries may be a way of keeping in contact with one another, but I sometimes wonder if they are just for sheer joy. Swifts fly high as they follow the clouds of insects, but on a hot, drowsy day I have seen them zipping through the garden just a couple of metres above the ground. By the end of July they will be done, these most ephemeral of visitors.

Spring starts for me with the frog chorus, and the sound of chiff chaffs in Coldfall Wood. But what marks the midpoint is the arrival of those papery-skinned nuggets of loveliness, Jersey Royal potatoes. I am a latecomer to asparagus (I think it was a very local, and probably very expensive, crop when I was growing up), but how my family loved a Jersey Royal. My earliest memory of them is my Nan sitting in her navy-blue quilted dressing gown with a yellow plastic bowl on her lap, scraping the skins off with meticulous care. We didn’t have proper cooks’ knives, but we did have a single bone-handled dinner knife with a blade that bent to the left. This knife had about an inch-worth of exquisite sharpness where the metal had thinned, and this was used for anything that required precision. Nan would work over each potato, no matter how small, until its creamy perfection was revealed. Sometimes, enough potatoes for the five of us would take her an hour and a half. Then it was into a pot of boiling water with them, with salt, and some mint thrown it at the end. With an essential knob of butter dropped on to them  and another sprinkling of salt, they were the high point of a Sunday dinner, and I could eat a bowl of them on their own, picking them up with my fingers and blowing on them until they were cool enough to eat.

Public Domain

Jersey Royals pre-scraping

Later, after Nan died in 1965, it was Mum who took up the mantle of the Jersey Royal scraping. Like Nan, she was a perfectionist, and a potato wasn’t done until there wasn’t a vestige of skin left. When I was in my teens we started on the New Potato wars: I would scrub the potatoes so that most, but not all, of the skin came off, because I rather liked the rustic appearance. Also, I had learned at school that most of the vitamins in a potato are just under the skin, and so why would you risk getting rid of it? Mostly, though, I think I was just expressing my independence in the way that teenagers so often do, by being contrary. Later, when I had Mum and Dad over for my legendary dinner parties, I would serve up the Jersey Royals scrubbed not scraped, and would watch Mum for the slightest hint of disapproval. I can still see her taking each potato in turn, perusing it with a slight frown, and then meticulously removing every scrap of skin before she started eating. As Mum was always a slow eater at the best of times (unlike the rest of us who could shovel it down for England) this could make for a very long meal.

I soon learned that Jersey Royals were either scraped or off the menu. I seem to remember that we came to a compromise and I served peeled King Edwards, roast or mashed, instead.

Now, I see it a little differently. For Nan and for Mum, spending all that time scraping the potatoes, doing something ‘properly’, was an act of love, something that was offered up to a largely unappreciative family. I once asked Mum why she was taking such care over something that she was knitting, when it was in a part of the garment that wouldn’t be seen.

‘They won’t even know, Mum’, I said, as she unravelled a sleeve.

‘Yes, but I’ll know’, she said.

Photo One from https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/buttered-jerseys

Jersey Royals post-scraping (Photo One)

When is something ‘good enough’? I have struggled with this my whole life, sometimes to the detriment of my mental and physical health. It’s as if I have a little voice in my head that judges whether I could have done more, worked harder. I gauge my mistakes against an impossible standard, while forgiving the mistakes of others with ease. And while it is good to be conscientious, it’s also true that some things matter more than others. People matter. Time spent creating matters. Doing things with love and care matters. But breaking yourself on the wheel of a scraped potato seemed a step too far for me earlier this week, as I scrubbed my Jersey Royals and threw them into a pot of boiling salted water, and delicious they were too, though I’m not sure they tasted quite as good as they did when I was a little girl.

Let me tell you a secret, though. I would scrape Jersey Royals with a bone-handled knife until my hands bled to share one more bowl of potatoes with Mum.

My mum. One of my favourite humans, then, now and for always

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/buttered-jerseys

20 thoughts on “Spring into Summer

  1. sllgatsby

    You are able to take something so simple, the preparation of potatoes, and make such a literary meal of it. I love this. I will certainly have to try a Jersey Royal when I am next in England. Thank you for continuing to bring a gentle and thoughtful break into my world on a regular basis with your blog. I so look forward to opening each one.

    Reply
  2. Anne

    I think the swifts and swallows have finally left … they seem to have hung around later than usual this year, so perhaps their instincts warned them to do so. Nature is wonderful in that way – if only we were more attuned to it! I enjoy that you focused on potatoes: we don’t get such varieties here (or if we do, they are not marketed in such a manner) for one either finds pockets or bags of potatoes or, as a marketing ploy, supermarkets might tout them as frying potatoes (usually large) or salad potatoes (usually small). I have always enjoyed eating potatoes in any form.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Ah yes of course, maybe the swifts that I’m seeing were the ones that you said goodbye to. Isn’t that a nice thought? In the UK there are a few named varieties, but generally they break down into ‘red’ or ‘white’, ‘salad’ or ‘baking’. It’s a shame when they’re so varied – Peruvian recipes treat them with the respect that they deserve, apparently!

      Reply
  3. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    I remember my mum scraping ‘new’ potatoes too. I’m not sure if they were always Jerseys, but I used to help sometimes and, you’re right, a good sharp knife makes a world of difference. I’m a bit of a perfectionist too, but I’m sure I (or my mum) wasn’t as meticulous as your mum. As long as they were clean, (after all they were going to be boiled too), that was good enough for us.

    Reply
  4. Gail

    I laughed at your description of the potato wars. It was just the same in my family. I still scrub, but sense my mum’s ghost frowning over my shoulder as I do.

    Reply
  5. Jacqueline Jacques

    In our house it was my grandfather who scraped the Jerseys. He wore a purple spotted pinney tied high under his armpits to protect his shirt and tie.
    He performed two other acts of vegetable devotion. Preparing onions for pickling and, most arduous of all, gouging out three turnips to make lanterns for me and my sisters at Halloween. A man who relished a challenge.

    Reply
      1. JACQUELINE JACQUES

        Thank you for the link. I love it, because those are precisely the unspoken acts of love my father performed, which we took for granted. The tragedy is that when you recognize it as an act of love, it’s too late to say thank you.

      2. Bug Woman Post author

        I know, Jacqueline. But there is also something about being brought up in such an atmosphere of care and love that you didn’t think to say thank you – your father created such a bubble of security for you that what he did wasn’t exceptional. I suspect that he knew that he had done his job, and that he smiled inwardly at how you accepted it without comment.

  6. bindyamc

    Jersey royals post scraping looks yummy,and even I hv heard them say micronutrients r more on the skin of potato . Mothers do things diligently b that’s why they r our role models.nice photo of your mum.

    Reply
  7. FEARN

    Very evocative. Overscraped potatoes were frowned on in our house as “that’s where the flavour is”. Yes it is a fine line you walk with potato preparation. BTW there is an early potato variety called “Swift”. Also Jersey Royals are the same as International Kidney. The only distinction is whether the potato field is on Jersey or not! Curiously the RHS describe it as an “early maincrop”.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I seem to remember that Jersey Royals were more kidney-shaped when I was a child which would explain the alternate name. It’s not an early maincrop though, surely? If they were any more waxy you could draw with them 🙂

      Reply
  8. Liz Norbury

    I agree that a bowl of new potatoes, scrubbed not scraped, with mint, salt and butter is a real seasonal treat. Jersey Royals aren’t eaten much around here, as they’re seen as competition for the new potatoes grown by many of our local farmers! We buy ours from the farm shop up the road. There’s often a choice of several different varieties, although they’re known collectively as Cornish Earlies. We like to think they’re just as delicious as their Jersey rivals!

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I’m sure that local potatoes fresh out of the soil will always have the edge on imported potatoes, however delicious. I remember the potatoes that my Dad dug up on the allotment, and how excited we were as children to collect them. Nothing ever tasted as good!

      Reply

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