These early potatoes are synonymous with Jersey, a small island around 80 miles off the south coast.
Jersey Royals are the island's main crop. In fact, agriculture on Jersey is totally dominated by their production which accounts for nearly half of its total agricultural income.
"There are only three genuinely seasonal British products – Jersey Royal potatoes followed very closely by British asparagus and in the summer you have got British strawberries," explains William Church from The Jersey Royal Company, as he shows me around his pack house.
These wonderful spuds, a variety of salad potato, are known for their early arrival on the Market - as early as February for the first plantings under glass. (These command incredible premiums of up to £5,500 per tonne). Crops from other places such as Cornwall and Kent tend not to start until around May.
- The Jersey Royal originated in 1878 when a farmer called Hugh de la Haye harvested a kidney-shaped potato which was nicknamed the Jersey Royal Fluke by a local newspaper. This potato later became known as the Jersey Royal, and has retained the characteristic kidney bean shape and great taste.
- The actual variety of potato is International Kidney. However, The Jersey Royal Company has produced its own seed potatoes for many years which have unique characteristics. They hand grade 120 million seed potatoes every year.
- The Jersey Royal Company is the main producer on the island and a completely integrated business, working 3,500 acres. "We grow it, harvest it, pack it, distribute it, sell it – the whole shebang," explains Church. Their main competitor is Albert Bartlett, who work with seven farmers on the island.
- Specific vocabulary in Jersey include: côtils (steep south-east facing slopes); vergée (a unit of measurement - around a quarter of an acre); and vraic (Jersey seaweed, traditionally used as a fertiliser).
Growing and harvesting
The cycle starts with harvesting the seed potatoes in July. These are stored, graded then prepared for planting out. The potato produces a first shoot ('the apical dominant shoot') which they knock off. In turn, the plant produces four or more new shoots, which increases eventual yield.
The first seed potatoes are planted in November in glasshouses for an early crop in mid to late February. However, the bulk of the planting in open fields is done in early January with the first harvests in March.
"We have about 25 acres under glass. We are doing about 3,500 acres in total," explains Church.
The outdoor planting starts on the steep slopes which benefit from the warming effects of the sea, then move inland. The crop is forced by the use of plastic cloches, which accelerate their time to harvest.
After around 12 weeks, the potatoes are harvested then get their first grading in the field.
The crop is then delivered to the pack house, which is equipped with in ingenious machinery to sort, grade, wash and pack the potatoes.
"This is an extraordinary business model," explains Church, "as effectively you have got about nine months of the year when you are spending money and three months when you are digging and selling it. So if you don’t make it work then you are goosed."
Keep it simple - that's the mantra with these spuds. At time of writing, here's a sample of dishes in London restaurants:
- Seaweed broth, mussels and Jersey Royals at Salon, Brixton.
- Tamarind Jersey Royals with grilled asparagus, miso-cured duck and yolk at Providores, Marylebone.
- Loch Duart salmon with petit pois à la Française, herb crust, Jersey Royals, bacon and mint at Chez Bruce, Wandsworth.
- A side dish of crushed Jersey Royals, spring onion and herbs at The Ninth, Fitzrovia.
- Salmon, pea veloute, bacon and Jersey Royals at The Drapers Arms, Islington.
- Slow-roast Goosnargh chicken with a warm hay buttermilk, grilled leek vinaigrette and Jersey Royals at the Ollie Dabous pop-up at Chelsea Flower Show.
- Jersey Royal vichyssoise with frème fraiche at Galvin Hop, Spitalfields.
This dish below is Jersey Royals with black garlic and cured egg yolk served at the restaurant Anglo in Holborn.