Kirsty Gunn: The humble potato has a lesson for us all

The potatoes Kirsty Gunn will be scrubbing taste amazing becaue of the way they are grown: family stock, not industrialised. Picture: Getty
The potatoes Kirsty Gunn will be scrubbing taste amazing becaue of the way they are grown: family stock, not industrialised. Picture: Getty
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I’m looking forward to being back in Sutherland and having some potatoes. The local shop gets them in from the Black Isle and they’re always delicious.

Just boiled lightly, with butter and masses of black pepper, or with lemon juice and olive oil flashed around in a roasting dish. And there’s an even more local red potato I’ll also be eating, with the mint that’s starting to come through in the garden, and a salad. Tastes of the summer ahead, alright, and home.

What is it about potatoes and Scotland? My father has a thing about them, and my father-in-law did. “Now where’s this potato from?” is a question I would hear from both, especially this time of year when the new potatoes are in season, along with the more declamatory and delighted: “Now that’s a delicious potato!” Is it generally a source of such delight, I wonder, across the rest of the UK? We know about the Irish and potatoes, but in England they don’t talk about them so much – yet certainly in my own experience, as a metaphor for the comforts of familiarity and tradition, in novels and stories by people like Neil Gunn and Maurice Walsh, as well as being a basic element of the Highland diet, potatoes do crop up, if you don’t mind me putting it that way.

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After Kenn has caught the salmon at the beginning of Gunn’s “Highland River”, there follows a paean to the kitchen and the foods produced over its open fire. “The burst jackets of potatoes steaming upwards,” Gunn writes. It’s the kind of thing always makes me want to rush off and throw a few potatoes in a pot myself – though I can only dream about the 30-pound wild salmon element of the feast, “a cock fish fresh from the sea, with the very colour of strength in its scales”.

Goodness’ knows, with the big business interests of so many multinational companies now dominating the farmed salmon “industry” as it’s so often scarily referred to, and with, according to environmentalists and scientists, that industry’s absence of adequate water testing and effluent monitoring, there’s little chance of finding anything other than the poor, cheaply cage-raised creatures plagued with lice and pathogens, according to a recent 30,500-strong petition calling for greater vigilance and care in the farming of fish that also threatens wild salmon reserves. That, along with the government-backed push to increase output and fish farming density to something like double the current numbers by 2030 means I can only dream that, in the capture and eating of the magnificent salmon, life might imitate art.

Would that a responsible government generate the checks and paperwork that represent more than just a going-through-the-motions of an industry driven principally by productivity and profit. Would that all food in Scotland be responsibly and organically farmed and sourced and harvested so that it did not threaten the natural larder that is our waters and hills. I continue to watch and wait to see what the Holyrood environment, climate change and land reform committee actually does. Not just advertise their concern but create policy that really stands up to the might of the multinational wind turbine companies and fish farms and the rest, with their will to have their own way at the cost of our landscape, delicate eco-systems and quality of life – of all creatures, human and animal.

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I was eating a very different sort of potato in London last week when my husband introduced me to Asma Khan and her Darjeeling Express – both a restaurant and a book. The restaurant is amazing – up on a sort of balcony just off Carnaby Street in a courtyard that reminded me a bit of being in New Zealand and Australia where they love courtyards and putting shops and restaurants in them – and with fans and little photographs of Calcutta everywhere, which is where Asma is from, along with Darjeeling up in the hills where her culinary sensibility was founded.

“This is my food,” says Asma, laying down in front of me a plate of aromatic black chickpeas with a little pastry shell filled with aromatic water. “It’s my home, these flavours ...” Adding a salad made of pomegranate, cucumber and mint and a platter of puris, a light pastry puff blown up like a golden balloon and eaten alongside her signature dish, Bengali goat curry “with the occasional potato”. Then there was the beetroot raita – can you imagine how pretty that was? – and bright, lime green Makhana paneer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such colour laid out on a table before! For pudding there was something I’d had in Calcutta, on the advice of my friend, the writer Amit Chaudhuri, called Mishti Doi, a sort of baked milk dish that may not sound attractive – the concept being somehow caught up in memories of junkets and school dinners - but in fact is the most wonderful sweet thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. The word “ambrosia” comes to mind, I remember saying to Amit.

We were in Calcutta together because he lives there and we were teaching a writing course based on those delivered at the University of East Anglia where he also lives. I felt extremely at home in Calcutta because of the Scottish connection – the city is filled with Scottish schools and churches and clubs dating back from the early days of colonial rule - and met the fabulous team at the British Council there who were keen for us to make more of our Scottish-Indian traditions. Might these be forged through the eating of a divine pudding, I wonder? Certainly Asma was delighted when she found out that I knew and loved Mishti Doi – she calls it Bhapa Doi, on account of her slightly different cooking method. “Here in the UK we need the steam,” she said. “Whereas in Calcutta, well, it’s warm enough without.”

So, altogether. Food and culture. Culture and food. The two really are quite beautifully linked. Asma’s book is published this month and is richly written as well as photographed and designed – speaking of a way of life that takes time to enjoy the pleasures of the present and what is all around us. The potatoes I’ll be scrubbing for the pot taste amazing because of the way they’re grown, by individual farms on the Black Isle and using stock that has been in a family for generations. Because they’re not industrialised. Because they’re from the ground up.