Playing the tuber

Now is the time to get the best of "earthy" Jersey Royals

Jersey Royals have been in the shops since February, but the ones to buy are those coming on to the market now. The early arrivals grew in greenhouses; the current ones are the first of the outdoor crop, and the tastiest.

My greengrocer sells Jerseys for only a couple of months. By the end of June, they are getting larger and less interesting. It seems that the supermarkets grab most of the new crop coming through then, and supermarket Jerseys are often disappointing. I suspect that refrigerated storerooms and lorries nullify some of the flavour.

That flavour is hard to define: "earthy" is the best I can do. You get a sense of nourishing soil. The texture is waxy - the cells of the potatoes remain coherent when cooked rather than separating as they do in floury varieties. Natural fertiliser from Jersey's cattle and seaweed is reckoned to be the distinctive ingredient.

All of them are descendants, according to island lore, from one, 15-eyed parent. An islander called Hugh de la Haye cut it up and planted it in about 1880; the following spring, he got baby potatoes that were kidney-shaped and delicious. Today, the seed tubers are still hand-selected, arranged upright, and planted on "cotils" (slopes) from the first week of January to mid-April.

The crop is behind this year. The Jersey Royal Company, which is responsible for 85 per cent of the island's output, tells me that everything was going fine until the end of February, when the mild weather had encouraged healthy growth. Then there were storms; and then three nights of frost. By the end of April, the company had distributed only 60 per cent of the allocation normal for the time of year. It expects the overall crop to be reduced, and prices to be higher.

I think it is a shame to mess around with these early Jerseys. Wash them, but do not rub away all the skin. "Earthy" is not necessarily synonymous with unsubtle; you can obscure the flavour by smothering them in sauces, or by assembling them with lots of other ingredients. Roasting, too, can cause them to lose their character. Steaming works well, provided you do not have so many potatoes crowding the pan that they have uneven access to the heat.

When boiling them, it is a good idea to start them (or any other potatoes) in cold water, bring it slowly to a simmer, and cook them gently, without salt. A saline solution and rapid boil may soften and break down the exterior of the potatoes before they are cooked.

A garlicky vinaigrette, in spite of its strength, will complement Jerseys well. You could boil a garlic clove with the potatoes, slip it from its skin, and crush it into some vinegar with salt and pepper. Don't make the sauce too oily: for each part of vinegar, whisk in just two parts of your chosen oil. Cut up the potatoes and toss them in the sauce while still hot.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis