I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it has been to write about this passion of mine. I had started a draft some weeks ago, after returning from a bleak wet break to The Lake District. Frustrated I was and afraid that I would not do it justice. And then I read a piece by Nigel Slater who wrote with such apparent ease of his own “deep fondness” for the humble potato: “The crisp sticky edges of a roast potato that has stuck to the roasting tin;” “The first forkful of creamy buttery mash;” and let’s not ponder too much on “the crisp bite of a barely cooked Jersey Royal.” It all became too much for me. I simply couldn’t compete. I am sorry to say I abandoned my poor attempt at eulogising this glorious friend of mine. But now I am digging up my courage by its roots and taking you back through time, once again, to the scanty days of my youth where I may unearth some truths. I really need to know why my meals cannot survive without a helping hand from the humble yet generous spud.
Sit yourself down to dine with the Gradwell kids and learn just what our mother produced from a peeled potato and half a pound of Kilverts'.
“Chips!” I hear you shout. Yes there were plenty of those and Mum believed that the perfect chip came from a Cyprus potato (those clumsy mini-airship-shaped spuds dusted with the warm red soil of the eastern Mediterranean). She would tip them out of the bag onto laid out newspaper and peel them with a sharp knife (never a potato peeler). I didn’t like the thick dirty coils of peel that heaped up like compost on the paper but loved to feel the clean yellow flesh of the potato once it had been rinsed under the tap. Mum would line them up on the counter top like a row of rugby balls waiting to be kicked. The lard would melt slowly on the heat and I would watch it shrink from a solid white block to a soft-edged pat and finally surrender itself to a blister-hot hazy pool of liquid fat. Only then would Mum - with hot red hands - hold the whole potato above the pan and slice it into chips that fell with spits and crackles into the bubbling liquid below. But there was much more to come from up her spattered sleeve.
One of those was a much-loved family favourite. A staple in the Gradwell family diet: Par-ba-fra. What on earth is that? I know, it sounds remotely exotic like it might emerge from the sunny kitchen of a French bistro or perhaps a Greek Taverna.Yet what it has become in my memory is a plateful of heaven - a steaming pile of part-boiled, deep-fried chunks of potato with crusted crunchy edges and soft white innards that, because we were so eager to eat, often burned our tongues or blistered the roof of our mouths. They were, in fact, a speedier version of a roast potato. A mound of King Edward’s cubed and boiled for 5 or so minutes and then plopped into a chip pan full of heated lard, pulled out only when they became amber and crisped. They filled our tummies and our hearts with joy. Stodgy and starchy but an entirely necessary part of our diet.
On another day Mum would boil chunks of potato in salted water until they would break open when prodded. After draining them she would set about with her fork and work them into a lumpy mash. Then, in a frying pan, she would allow a slither of lard to melt and heat up on the stove. The mashed potato would fall into the hot lard and Mum would flatten it out so that it covered the whole base of the pan. She would leave it for what seemed like an age before upturning it in batches so each side would develop a thick and often blackened crunchy crust. We would be served heavy wedges of this fried potato with beans or perhaps some boiled cabbage and Mum could rely on it always satisfying our hunger.
On Saturday nights, Dad would arrive home from his angling trips and Mum would return to her trusted frying pan. Dad’s favourite were scalloped potatoes (I suppose a chef might call them ‘fondant potatoes’). These were fat scallops of sliced potato that sat and sizzled in their shallow bath of hot lard, being turned over only once so that each side would develop a thin patchy crust. It was during one hot summer that Dad instructed me on how to cook the perfect scalloped potato. In my memory this has to be the same summer where he felt some concern for what was put on the dining table. That summer he became a gardener who grew runner beans in rows, their tendrils twisting upwards against tall sticks of cane. Along the hedge borders he planted seeds which sprouted into verdant heads of lettuce whose loose outer leaves splayed open to reveal tender pale green hearts. And the unwieldy rhubarb which, each year, was so often forgotten was remembered and tamed by hacking off monster leaves to allow access to tart pink stalks.
The scallop, he advised, must come from a large potato and the first and last scrappy cut should be discarded. The remaining slices should be as thick as a finger and dried thoroughly before laying carefully in the hazy lard. Leave them alone awhile before slipping a spatula underneath the first slice and testing it for colour. Once both sides have browned the resulting scallop should be nicely golden but firm to bite. I didn’t like saying it but I was never a fan of the unyielding and hard-fleshed scalloped potato with its thin veneer of crust. It was the contrasting textures I craved in my potatoes and so, for its crisp-crunchy edges and soft fluffy centres, the chip or roast potato would always be my favourite.
One Saturday night, long before Dad began to grow his own vegetables, Mum was cooking her usual batch of scallops. She promised to let me have the fried scrappy off-cuts which I knew would have dark golden edges framing a soft white middle. I was only five:
Mum has scooped the last of the big slices from the pan and piles them on Dad’s plate. I can hear the scraps singing in their heat and while Mum carries the plate up the hallway I grab the pan handle and pull it toward me. The first splash of hot fat reaches my skin and I recoil, horrified, but it’s too late and the frying pan slips from the stove with its contents washing over my hand. The red hot pain is making me scream and Mum is desperate for me to stop. She smears butter on my hand which makes me scream even louder. Dad is shouting at Mum and I can’t understand why he doesn’t shout at me – I am making so much noise. Instead he picks me up and carries me to the car and drives us to the infirmary. He promises me a bar of chocolate if I am brave and I’m so shocked I stop crying. The hospital smells of our medicine cupboard and another unfamiliar scent of injury and sadness. I am too scared to cry again and wait with Dad – he is holding my good hand.
I am at home now and allowed in the front room where Dad sits in his comfy chair in the corner. I have a big bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk which is put to one side while I climb onto his knee. I realise now that Dad has a second nature which can cover up his harsh first. The first, I know, fixes the thin line of his mouth into grim silence and sets his eyes cold like blue pebbles. Tonight, his little girl’s hurt has disturbed his mute paternity and his second nature opens into song: sweet and low and soothing. I rest my head against his chest and feel the scratchy wool of his cardigan and take in the calming earth-woody scent of tobacco. And as far as I remember this is the only occasion where I have sat on my father’s knee. The memory of it is cushioned and sound, like a jewel in safe-keeping.
The day after my Grandma scolds me, telling me that no man on earth would want to put a ring on the finger of a girl with a scarred hand. “You’ll never marry,” she sighs, wearily.
The first meal I made, when I left home at 21, was a copy of another of Mum’s potato dishes. The one she named ‘hamburger’ despite the fact it was devoid of ham. The meat she used would have been minced beef and the ratio of potato to meat was considerably larger. A kind of meat version of a fish cake. There was another ingredient – a sliced onion. This would be boiled in salted water and simmered along with the beef until all the red rawness had disappeared and tiny bubbles of yellow fat appeared on the surface. Mum would drain this mixture and combine it with mounds of mashed potato which she allowed to cool. In her hand she would roll palm-sized patties about the thickness of a scone and fry them in a frying pan of hot fat. We usually ate these with a serving of baked beans and a splodge of brown sauce. I copied her methods so diligently back then - at 21 I didn’t know you could experiment with recipes.
I try a version of this today, using turkey mince instead of beef and boosting the flavour with chilli, aromatic rosemary and the warm aniseed pungency of fennel seeds. Of course, experience has taught me not to strip the meat and onion of their essence by boiling them in water. Instead, I sauté both along with the herbs and spice in a good glug of oil. After mixing the meat and onion with the mashed potato and allowing it to cool slightly I test a mouthful of it before forming patties: warm and un-fried and taking me back in an effortlessly Proustian manner to my childhood where Mum would frown at the insatiable can’t-wait hunger of her children. My memory tells me the potato was there to nourish and sustain. And I see, as I serve up this adaptation of my past, that the potato continues to satisfy an often ravenous appetite. How might Mr Slater describe this dish? Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps he would see it as little mounds of gooey potato folded gently around meat and herbs and encased with a thick sticky rustling of golden crunch. Whatever, I think they look delicious and serve them alongside the newness of a baby spinach salad and a drizzle of mustard dressing.