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