Special Branch: Rabet Jersey Royal Potatoes
My love affair with Jersey Royal new potatoes had faded, writes James Wellock, as the flavour of what we were actually getting had seemed to disappear. My childhood memories were brought back to life when Jersey farmer Alan Rabet contacted me via a lovely letter, not an email. ‘We do things the traditional way’, Alan wrote and this just sprang out off the page so I asked him to send a bag of his Jersey Royals over to us. We were amazed when Wellocks’ chef Leigh Myers cooked them off in our kitchen – all that flavour remembered from childhood was there!
There was only one thing to do – get over to Jersey to see if we had another gem of a supplier!
We were met at the airport in near darkness by Alan’s partner Michelle – full of beans – we had an island tour guide and chauffer all rolled into one. A brief sunset created a good feeling of anticipation as to what we would find in the morning and led to a sense of excitement as I tried to get to sleep.
Michelle came to collect us on a cold showery April morning but we were not disappointed when we arrived at Rabet’s farm and saw the current field being harvested. I always get taken aback by something on these trips of discovery and yet again I was not disappointed. Normally you see farm workers in the field and large machinery, but not here. Instead, the two Rabet brothers – Alan and Philip – were on their hands and knees harvesting the potatoes! It was with a sense of awe that I realised that they really do follow tradition – and I couldn’t wait to speak to them.
They explained that this is what they have done all their lives. Their father started farming their land 60 years ago and the potato seed they use today is the same as the one they started with. As Philip explains, they have never sent their seed away for genetic modification to remove viruses and create the perfect disease-free high cropping variety hybrid like the larger farms. “It doesn’t tend to crop heavy,” says Philip, “but we find we still have that flavour that I remember as a child. Some people tell you that Jersey Royals have lost the flavour – I say try some of ours!”
The brothers sense of pride in the soil comes out as they explain how they use seaweed as natural fertiliser. They harvest the seaweed in late June, painstakingly gathering it after a storm which is what breaks it off the rocks. They spread the seaweed on the fields to replenish the goodness it gives up to grow the potatoes. Not only does this replace trace elements but it adds a sweetness and, best of all, salt to the potatoes. You should not need to season these when cooking.
In the early harvest field that we visited, Philip explained that rocks left in the soil help to keep it warm so they could plant earlier here; the later harvest fields are so sandy it’s like being on the beach. A lifetime of profound knowledge of the land is evident in the brothers as they talk about the locations of the natural springs available to them to water crops. And the love is all over their hands as they pick and handgrade the potatoes in the field, discarding any green or mis-shapen ones, and grading small and medium sized into separate buckets.
Why do they do this by hand? To protect the skin, pure and simple. Why do they need to protect the skin? Because just under the skin is where all the goodness and flavour is and this is paramount in their minds. Indeed, this care is taken even further back in the Rabet’s bagging barn – it’s over 250 years old and the traditions run deep. Again there’s no mechanical process here. Instead the pickers very gently pour the bags from the field onto a tilted table covered with a hessian sack. As the potatoes roll down the table, they are sorted a second time by hand to remove large or mis-shapen potatoes.
This is done to remove the soil attached to the skin without damaging it. In fact, every part of the process is to protect the skin and the flavour underneath. They show the potato the utmost respect. No bruising, maximum flavour! The brothers believe this respect should go into the kitchen too. For the best flavour, they say don’t scrub them just simply give them a quick wash under the tap!
Alan explains that this is his life. The land, the views and what better office could you have? It’s coupling this together with maintaining the traditions of the finest new potato in the world which give his life a true meaning.
He and his brother want nothing but the name Rabet to be famous for producing the best! It’s quite a statement but you can see in their eyes and on their hands they really mean it.
After seeing how they work I can only welcome them into Wellocks Special Branch and to have an exclusivity arrangement with them makes me feel so proud!
The Rabets are awe inspiring and I look forward to you, the chefs, using their Jersey Royal as they should be used – as a headline on the menu.