MasterChef gets vegetables all wrong: there is nothing “humble” about the potato

And “heritage” is just a fancy way of saying old.

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Some years ago I appeared on MasterChef; not, I must say, as a contestant – my culinary skills are not bad, although hardly of that standard – but as a guest judge when the programme was in its original manifestation with Loyd Grossman as presenter. I still recall asking one aspirant chef working on a fantastic dessert based on pears which variety he was using. He was completely flummoxed.

That sort of horticultural naivety among cooks has evidently not gone away. A few weeks ago on a current MasterChef programme, the contestants were invited to create a dish from a veritable market garden of fruit and vegetable ingredients. Not once were varieties mentioned yet the difference in appearance, flavour – and, sometimes, appropriate cooking methods – can be enormous.

Perhaps worse is the custom among restaurants and cookery writers of advocating what have euphemistically become known as heritage varieties. How often do we see “heritage carrots” on a menu? Heritage in a menu context is just a fancy word for old but carries some hidden implication that they are better than anything modern. In truth, the main reason old varieties have passed from general availability is because their yield is too small for today’s producers. There is no intrinsic association between age and flavour; sometimes older varieties have less rather than more.

And I do wish cookery folk wouldn’t feel the need to denigrate produce that happens to be common and familiar. Back on MasterChef, contestants were asked to create a dish based on the “humble” potato while the same week one of the glossiest food magazines was advocating “humble” apples. Believe me, there is nothing humble about potatoes and apples. The story of the cultivation of potatoes in South America at least 4,000 years ago, their introduction to Europe in the 16th century and the skills of plant breeders since to develop today’s multitude of varieties is full of drama and romance. Apples have been treasured since Roman times and we now have over 2,000 kinds in Britain.

This month, keen gardeners will be selecting vegetable seed varieties and potatoes for growing in the coming season. While the options will vary depending on whether you have a tiny kitchen garden or a full blown allotment, may I share a few recommendations.

Even in a tiny space, a row of first early potatoes will reward you and my choice lies with Red Duke of York – not especially easy to cook (they are floury and you must watch carefully before they fall apart) but with wonderful flavour.

Among green (or more or less green) vegetables, choose Rhubarb Chard with its multicoloured stems and numerous culinary uses; the dark leaved Italian-type kale, Black Magic; and, sowing ahead for harvesting next spring, Claret – the matchless biennial sprouting broccoli.

If you appreciate pulses and have space for just one, it should be the climbing French bean Cobra. They take up far less space than the dwarf varieties and are not as bulky as runner beans.

If you have room for a few root vegetables, choose the attractive beetroot Chioggia and multicoloured carrots such as Rainbow Mix. Sow the carrots close together and don’t thin them. The individual roots will be smaller but attacks from carrot fly much less likely. Whatever varieties you choose, cherish your crops, remember their names and never call them humble. 

This article appears in the 11 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown