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Scotland’s Larder: A snapshot of Potato House

We had the pleasure of an interview with Catriona Thomson from the Scotsman – Scotland’s Larder. This article sums up our challenges as well as our opportunities just now and provides a snapshot of Potato House. All text and photographs are (c) The Scotsman and are used with permission. The photographer, Lisa Ferguson had her work cut out – the lab was running around too, but didn’t want his picture taken.

Andrew Skea from The Potato HouseAndrew Skea from The Potato House. Picture by Lisa Ferguson

Scotland’s Larder: Andrew Skea from The Potato House

First Published 3rd February 2021 Scotland’s Larder

In this week’s Scotland’s larder we talk to Andrew Skea, from Potato House about how Brexit is affecting the Scottish seed potato industry and about growing your own heritage spuds.

Whether it is for baking, boiling, roasting, making chips or for mash, Andrew Skea knows a thing or two about the humble potato.

Andrew’s grandfather was involved in growing seed potatoes on a mixed arable from the 1950’s so potato growing is definitely in the blood.

Andrew explains that growing up, “that was pretty much all that was talked about.”

Andrew and his brother now take on the main growing duties at East Mains farm near Auchterhouse, but he said, “my father is still dodging around.”

Andrew founded Skea Organics, 20 years ago to supply farmers throughout UK and Europe and further afield with seed potatoes.

However his latest online venture selling a wide range of heritage varieties directly to the gardeners via their website The Potato House, has really taken off.

Andrew Skea with his children Calum Skea (14), Catriona Skea (13) Morag Skea (10)
Andrew Skea with his children Calum Skea (14), Catriona Skea (13) Morag Skea (10) Picture Lisa Ferguson.

Tattie picking

Andrew is old enough to remember the joy of the October holidays and tattie picking in all weathers, and reflects, “younger people ‘don’t do’ tattie picking now.”

Harvesting is now mechanised in the main, but they have some small test plots for different varieties on the farm which they do pick by hand.

Laughing he said: “but I’ve got a bit of a breeding programme and I’ve got a captive squad of my children: Calum (14), Catriona (13) and Morag (10) so I get them and their pals out to go tattie picking.”

It is only two or three days work a year and he chooses good weather for them.

Seed potatoes from Potato House
Seed potatoes from Potato House: Picture Lisa Ferguson.

He added:  “when we used to pick tatties: the first day your back got really sore, the second day it was just about alright, and from then on it was fine.

“The problem now is they are only doing three days so they don’t actually get to the enjoyable bit. But it is a novelty picking tatties for them, they think they are working hard but they are not at all. They have no idea.

“You don’t realise how much the world has changed in the past 35 years. The money that you earned tattie picking was crucial in those days.

“We were very lucky that the money we earned didn’t get used to buy new school shoes, but I remember that was what a lot of people were working for.”

Spuds U like

Chefs always have a favourite fashionable spud and the current one is Yukon Gold, which Gordon Ramsay is a fan of. Andrew said, “it has a bit more flavor and it is good for mashing and boiling.”

Andrew’s personal favourite is Arran Victory, of which he said, “I think it is the best roasting one that there is out of the hundred odd that we grow. That is the one we would have for Christmas dinner.”

As I’m named after a second early potato myself, I ask about my namesake called Catriona, which they have just added that to their growing list again. He said,  “I remember it from my childhood, it has a good flavour.”

The seed potato industry is traditionally strong in Scotland because of our climate.

Potatoes are different from every other crop because they are actually tubers from the adult plant, and are genetically identical to the original so are more susceptible to viruses.

Every year as you multiply them there is a possibility that an aphid will come along and infect that crop with a virus and the next year the crop will not grow so well.

To solve that problem you have to grow your seed potatoes in parts of the world where you don’t have so many aphids, somewhere that is a bit cooler, windier and damper.

Luckily he said, “in Scotland, the aphids just don’t like it here.

“Tatties go through phases of popularity; some get launched and stay for a long time, and some of them are more  flash in the pan, and then they disappear.”

Andrew Skea looks at his seed potato
Andrew Skea carefully checks over his seed potatoes: Picture Lisa Ferguson.

The Scottish government keeps an archive of varieties at The Scottish Agricultural Science Agency laboratory at Gogar, and the process of restoring a variety for sale starts from getting virus free stock from them.

Andrew explained: “to restore a variety they will send me some of the disease free plants in a test tube which I will then plant and multiply.

“After four or five years I will have enough certified tubers to start selling it again.

“I’ve got to comply with all the regulations about seed potato production, so we get inspected by the government and everything is checked so that it is virus free.

“That just wouldn’t be possible to do in the south of England or warmer places because you would get viruses within a year or two. Disease free stock is what the whole Scottish seed potato industry depends on.”

The process he describes is on a relatively small scale for his business needs, but the same thing applies on a larger scale for supplying seed for McCain chips or McDonald fries which use Russet Burbank

Old fashioned

Andrew said, “there has always been a bit of enthusiasm in Scotland for breeding new varieties, so there are lots of potato geeks out there like me.”

The DNA bank at Gogar is one of the main collections of potato varieties in the world, and it provides potential material for breeders to use in the future.

He tells me about famous breeders, like Archibald Findlay from Auchtermuchty who bred: Catriona and British Queen and Majestic which at one time was the biggest variety in the UK.

Arran Victory was bred on the Isle of Arran by Donald Mackelvie in 1918 and named to celebrate the end of the Great War. It is floury and good for mash and a great late-season plant.

Dunbar Standard and Rover were bred in 1936 by Charles T. Spence of Tynefield Farm, Dunbar. Andrew said,we have just started selling Dunbar Standard again and we are hoping to get going soon with Dunbar Rover.

Golden wonder  was bred over 100 years ago, in Scotland by a Mr. Brown of Arbroath.

Highland Burgundy has been around for 100 years and we don’t know who bred it originally, but it has a dull russet layer over a bright burgundy skin.

Edzell Blue is a floury variety that if over boiled will just turn into soup. There is an old story about judging an Angus housewife by how well she can cook her Edzell Blues.

Andrew Skea potato
Just one of the heritage varieties on offer online. Picture Lisa Ferguson.

He chuckled and explained, “when I got together with my wife Amy, she thought it was hilarious that my nickname was “Tattie” but if your father was a potato farmer in rural Angus or Perthshire, then you were called Tattie.

In Scotland, potatoes are a big industry with agronomists, breeders, scientists, inspectors, exporters and farmers, “it is one of the things that Scotland is renowned for around the world,” Andrew said.

They often export quirky old potatoes to Germany, he said  “they love our spuds, however right now we can’t export at all, due to Brexit.”

Andrew said, “I was optimistic and relatively relaxed because I thought it would be sorted within a few weeks. The current thinking is that sales to the EU will not be possible for next year- this is pretty devastating since that is where 45% of our tatties go.”

“I personally blame the UK for leaving the Brexit agreement so late – they only got a deal with 10 days to go, so it didn’t leave enough time to go through the process to get our potato deal finalised.”

“We knew about this cliff edge since January last year, so we delivered all the seeds early for this season in Germany, in November and December to avoid the problem.”

“We need to know if we are going to have a market, before we plant the crops this year, in April, but on balance that now it is looking unlikely.”

“Andrew said, “I had naive faith that it was sensible for a deal to be arrived at. However politics is much more complicated than that and a few farmers selling a small number of trucks loads of seed potatoes is not a major priority for politicians in London, who have  Brexit principles to uphold.”

To chit or not to chit?

On the question of chitting spuds, Andrew said, “it is a great idea.”

Chitting is method of preparing potatoes for planting by placing seed potatoes in a tray, shielded from direct sunlight. All but three or four of the “eyes” of the potato are removed, leaving only the strongest growth.

The reason Andrew explained, is: ” it gets your crop off to a much better start.  They will come through the ground in two weeks instead of about four weeks.

“That maybe doesn’t sound that critical at the start of the season but at the end of the season you will have a much better crop when the blight comes.

“We have been supplying garden centres for 20 plus years but being able to sell direct to the public is allowing us to offer a better range, and we are really enthused by that at the moment.

Andrew Skea from The Potato House
Andrew Skea from The Potato House: Picture Lisa Ferguson.

“I see an increasing demand for people to get more in touch with their food. Nowadays we are seeing a huge increase in six tuber packs, so people choose a wider range to grow.

“It’s more of a leisure thing and eating the potatoes is just a bonus.

“In the past the potato industry was all about yield and appearance and getting potatoes as cheap as possible onto supermarket shelves, but it is coming back towards flavour and cooking characteristics.

“Some of the older traditional varieties like Edzell Blue and Arran Victory, Kerr’s pink and other traditional Scottish favourites have been superseded in the supermarket by lower dry matter blemish free but relatively tasteless ones.”

Andrew continued: “what we are doing is trying to keep these older varieties that have got a bit more character available to grow in your garden.

“There is something that makes growing your own worthwhile, producing something special that you can’t get anywhere else.”

The Potato House

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Our Breeding plots – review of the “Tattie Holidays”

No half-term in Scotland

In Scotland, there was never a half term from school in October. We have always had the “tattie holidays” where the local kids would have the back-breaking task of picking potatoes in October for the local farmers. Farmers’ kids were especially lucky as their holiday could be officially extended if they were still needed to help out. Modern machinery has taken over and large fields can be completely harvested before the children from yester-year would have been been sitting down to their mid-morning “piece”. The school letters are slowly trying to change our terminology, but it will take a long time, especially in rural areas, for the words “half-term” to trip easily off our tongues.

Each year Skea Organics (our parent company), have trial plots where we have to go back to basics and use smaller machinery. The mesmerising video shows the basic lifting machine, hardly recognisable to the modern-day harvester, which runs on the same principle but is 100s of times the size. The nostalgic feeling is also helped by having children working by picking potatoes and bringing their own lunch – we think that our potato-lifting crew may be one of the very few working in fields this year. They really enjoyed it though – well they kept coming back for more which is hopefully the same thing.

Harvest 2020

Often we are asked about the tomato-looking thing that can grow on the potato plant after flowering. This is the true potato seed – and is the result of cross-pollination between two potato plants and if grown would be different from both parent plans. However in order to grow these, it would take several years of luck and you may not end up with an edible potato. Potatoes do not need to flower or to have their flower pollinated in order to grow the next generation (unlike most vegetables). The next generation comes from tuber growth and is identical to the parent.

Our on-going breeding programme is in conjunction with James Hutton Institute in Dundee where cross-pollination is done in a controlled way to ensure we know what has been crossed with what. The entire process takes years as the new potato will need to go through a variety of tests before being good enough to get it registered on the national database.

This year we had over 800 plots at various stages of selection, which includes control plots and these have to be carefully monitored, documented and of course kept separate. Each potentially could be the next best potato that you will be eating in a few years time! However, many will be discarded along the way. Our main aim is focused to blight resistant and tasty varieties – but the first cut will be how they look – and this can be a gut feeling from when they come out of the ground. We do not know what to expect, especially with the coloured varieties; will the colour be as we imagined. For example, is the result when we crossed a good blight resistant variety with a purple variety what we thought it would be.

The kids were all sent away with some potatoes to try – they will be eating something that no-one else has. Taste-testing is the perk of the job!

We are always after new varieties and within our breeding programme we try to find potatoes not only for the commercial market but also interesting for small gardeners and allotment growers. So far our only registered variety is Mary’s Rose, however we have a wave of new red and blue fleshed varieties in the pipeline as well as more disease-resistant white and cream fleshed varieties.

Our Potato Crew 2020

(back row) Byron, Finlay, Rowan, (front row) Adrian, Juliette, Angus, Calum (Morag missing) spent a few days hard at work lifting potatoes around the Auchterhouse area, returning mucky and happy. That’s something for the CV.

Background information about our breeding progrmame can be found

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Potato House talking tatties on Beechgrove Garden

Andrew having the best day ever! Talking tatties to a fellow potato enthusiast George Anderson from Beechgrove Garden. The team came to chat about our breeding programme, potatoes in general, coloured potatoes and enjoyed the homemade crisps on offer!

Beechgrove is a hardy annual TV gardening series which sets out to deal with, glory in and celebrate Scottish horticulture and growing conditions.

Beechgrove is and always has been a firmly practical, get-your-hands-dirty gardening programme which delights in success but also learns from failures in the garden and never takes itself too seriously.

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Planting Potatoes by Easter? Old Wives tale!

Many people think that potatoes need to be planted on Easter Sunday. This is an old wives tale! Traditionally, this was the first long weekend of the year and many people enjoyed being out in the garden for the first time. Others, we think enjoyed getting out of the kitchen and were given an important job to do! As Easter can vary each year by a huge amount, this is definitely not a reliable date. The storage facilities now mean that your potatoes can be sent out in perfect condition all throughout May and into June. Requiring 100 days for early and about 120 for main crops, a later planting simply means a later harvest. We are glad other people agree! See our FAQ for more details.

Kevin from English Homestead had fun with his girls planting Pink Gypsy, Salad Blue, Heidi Red and Highland Burgundy Red and then did a great Q&A with us. We love when bloggers are as excited about potatoes as we are! This is a great blog to follow and you can certainly say his kids are living the life most can only dream of!