Being a plant breeder and having a young family doesn’t leave me a lot of time for leisure gardening, but still, as an unashamed plant geek, I can’t resist indulging in a few plants and veg. This month is all about a humble potato.
In early February I started chitting tubers of a very special potato on my windowsill: La Bonnotte. Being French you may think I am a bit biased, but of all the potato varieties I have ever had the chance of tasting, this definitely tops my gourmet list. Sautéed whole in their skin, simply with salted butter and herbes de Provence, they are truly divine, with an unforgettable sea-like, sweet, citrusy and chestnutty note. It’s important to cook them in their skins to keep the taste, but the inward eyes would make peeling almost impossible anyway. I had ordered 2kg of seed potato and when they arrived, I was very tempted to cook some straight away… This was far worse than the Stanford marshmallow experiment, but I shall wait until harvest time!
La Bonnotte is normally grown on the small island of Noirmoutier, where the light sandy soil, oceanic microclimate and the addition of seaweed all participate in developing the unique flavour. It may also have to do with the absolute TLC every plant receives: La Bonnotte is planted by hand using the old technique of lazy beds – definitely not for the lazy gardener – which are essentially wide, parallel raised beds without any wooden borders. On the mere 5 hectares where they are grown, the tubers are planted on the 2nd of February and harvested before maturity 90 days later. The backbreaking job of harvesting and severing the growing tubers from the mother plant is again all done manually; machine harvest would just ruin the soft skins and delicate aromas.
With the mechanisation of agriculture in the 60s, La Bonnotte very nearly became extinct, but it was saved in extremis by passionate Noirmoutier growers and the INRA in the 90s. By April 1996, it was ready to go back on the market to the delight of chefs and gourmets alike. The first hand-harvested crop of 5 kg was auctioned and fetched the incredible price of €2,300, making La Bonnotte the most expensive potato in the world. Nowadays the price is more like €10 a kilo for the very first ones, still a high price for a spud!
Now back to reality. I very much doubt I’ll have the time and dedication to build lazy beds and add Irish moss seaweed when my own La Bonnotte tubers are finally ready for planting. I think I’ll plant some in the ground and some in bags. I’ll also be growing some tasty Jazzy as backup and comparison. Suffolk is a tad colder than Noirmoutier so I plan on planting in early March and won’t be able to taste them until the end of May. By then I’ll know if La Bonnotte tastes just as good without the influence of the sea, even if in Noirmoutier it has been nicknamed pomme de mer.