Fine-dining is all very well, but there’s nothing that beats the humble spud.
Celebrity chef and restaurateur, James Martin, 50, would probably agree.
He’s just written a new book, simply called Potato, which is a celebration of this starchy vegetable, with over 100 recipes.
“They’re so versatile,” he says, when I talk to him.
Martin, who describes Scotland as “one of the best countries in the world”, tells me he’s just back from a trip to Glasgow, where he was taken on a food crawl of “a pizzeria, an Italian, a Cantonese and a Chinese, all in one night”. Does he remember the names of the restaurants?
“It’s a bit of a blur to be honest. Ronnie Bartlett took me on a whistle-stop tour of all the eateries. We had a course and a pint of lager in each one”.
Sounds like fun, even though there were no potatoes involved on that trip. Does he have salt and sauce on his chips when he’s in Edinburgh? “Of course”.
Anyway, potatoes are the perfect subject for the chef, since he re-opened the reinvigorated retro chain SpudULike last year, alongside Airdrie-based tattie supplier Albert Bartlett, whose chairman is the eponymous Ronnie.
Martin’s last book, Butter, which came out last year, also focused on a single ingredient. He got a bit of light-hearted stick for that one on social media, as, on the cover, he stares a bit too intensely at a clod of butter that he’s grasping. On the latest jacket, they’ve gone for a portrait of him standing proudly in front of a knobbly wall of purple and beige tubers, of which, the book explains, “there are over 5000 types”. This time, he’s smiling.
In the introduction, Hampshire-based Martin credits his grandad for his love of tatties.
“He grew his own. He used to produce the most amazing tasting potatoes that he just simply used to steam and boil and serve with a little bit of poached fish. Yeah, really simple. Bloody delicious”, he says.
As well as this relative, the book also pays tribute to another influential male figure in Martin’s life: the late Michel Roux Sr, who died back in 2020. There’s a dedication to him at the back of Potato, along with a picture of them together on a sunny day.
“He was a great friend, colleague and mentor of mine,” he says. “He managed to appear on my TV show and he wasn't very well in the lead up to it but he wanted to come on. He taught me so much and gave me so much advice. I've valued his friendship as well and he’s sadly missed”.
Would he have approved of the recipes in your book? “Without a shadow of a doubt”.
Martin has certainly packed it with ideas. As well as the savoury options, he’s managed to include some unexpected desserts. Sweet potatoes count, apparently. There’s a heavily iced cake and they’re used as an ingredient in pecan cookies. To create all the recipes, as with all Martin’s books, there was a lot of experimentation involved.
“It turns into sort of a Willy Wonka thing in the test kitchen”, says Martin, who hosts James Martin Saturday Morning on ITV. “The great thing about a book and the fun part is the testing of it. I've got a group of people that have been with me for the last 15 years. We'll be throwing ideas around in terms of what we're going to do. There were a few failures, like a souffle that didn't work”.
Among many other things, their final edit includes samosas, Arbroath Smokie Scotch eggs, tartiflette, bunny chow, cheesy potato waffles and coquilles St Jacques, with dishes that range from very fancy to unsophisticated comfort food.
Martin’s involvement with SpudULike meant that a baked spud with cheese and beans, though pimped up with lardons and mustard, was a shoe in.
“Often a really good baked potato doesn't require anything: no oil, no salt, nothing, just prick it with a fork and that's it. There's natural moisture in the potato anyway really, that's the great thing about it,” he says.
This version is to be cooked in the oven for 75 minutes, not in one of your new fangled air-fryers.
“I don't actually know what that is. I've heard about them. I'm choosing to ignore them. These fads come as quickly as they go. I can't see many chefs using air fryers,” he says.
He’s also included a crisp sandwich, but a slightly fancy one. It still features the prerequisite sliced white bread, but with homemade crisps made from Chippies Choice potatoes.
If Martin was going to go for the shop-bought variety, I wonder what he’d choose.
“Remember the ones with the blue salt pouch?”.
Salt and Shake.
“Yeah, you certainly used to be able to get those from the tuck shop, with the sachet of salt, but now everyone’s being told to eat less bloody salt, the whole world’s gone mad”.
Martin might be dating himself with that comment. This is the year that he hit the big 5-0, but he doesn’t seem that flustered about the landmark birthday.
“You have a bit of a life choice to make. You're not as you're not as movable as you were when you were 20,” he says. “I just chilled out and went to my mate’s restaurant. No parties”.
We hoped that someone, at the very least, managed to bake him a sweet potato cake.
Potato by James Martin (Quadrille, £23) Photography ©John Carey