Friday, March 9, 2012

In praise of buying locally, part 2: The Potato Guy

At the end of my last post, I said I would be “digging deeper”. I wasn’t kidding.

Today, as part 2 of my series on sourcing local, well-grown food, I’m going to be talking about potatoes. But first, you need a little background.

For years, my son Karel and I have been going to the St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto nearly every Saturday. It is a fantastic resource for this city to have. Saturdays, as well as the South Market, there is a farmers market in the north building. We always start there and purchase most of the week’s fruit and vegetable needs. There are also vendors who also sell meat, poultry, cheese, baked goods, etc., very much in keeping with most farmers markets, but we ignore them most of the time. We’re there for fruits and veggies!

Sadly, there are also some vendors who “pretend” to be farmers. Their stalls look much the same as the others, but their wares come straight from the Ontario Food Terminal. It didn’t take us long to figure out which was which, and Karel and I generally make our purchases from those selling fruits and vegetables that they’ve grown on their land.

One of our favorite stops is at The Potato Guy, as Karel calls him. Bob Taylor of Cedar Creek Farms (Rockwood, Ontario) is an affable man who knows more about these amazing tubers than anyone I’ve ever met. (We haven’t been out to visit his farm yet, but that’s something I hope to rectify this coming summer.) Everything for sale on his tables was grown on a farm that’s been in the family for generations, and it shows in the quality of his potatoes and the pride with which he sells them.

If you only buy potatoes at a supermarket, you may have noticed that you see the same three or four varieties over and over. With the exception of Yukon Gold, the potatoes you see in the average supermarket are not marked as to what strain the are. They’re sold as generically white potatoes, redskins, and Idaho. But what strain are they? I don’t think anyone in the store could tell you.

Not so when you buy from Bob Taylor. He’s at the market every Saturday around 5:00 a.m. with plastic crates full of all different kinds of heritage potatoes. These go into either pint or quart baskets and are laid out on the table according to strain. The key here is the signs that each of the orderly rows has. These identify the strain and which way(s) is best to cook them. And I’ll bet you’ve never seen any of the names before.

Want to know the best mashing potato? Bob will tell you. You’re making a roast and want to throw some potatoes in to cook with it. Bob will have the perfect suggestion. And the thing about all his potatoes is that the taste is fantastic – and each one is different.

Some of these strains have been around for a very long time. You just don’t see them much anymore. Why is that? “Because they may be a bit harder to grow,” Bob told me a few weeks ago. “Or maybe they don’t look as nice as the potatoes in your supermarket.” He picked up a particularly knobbily spud. “See what I mean? These would be hard to wash mechanically and they look a bit funny. But when you stick a forkful of these in your mouth, you’ll know why I grow them.”

Besides bringing better tasting potatoes to his customers, Bob is helping keep these heritage strains alive. He has made lots of converts over the years.

Sadly,with winter winding down, so is his stock. Some of our favorites have already sold out. The only thing to do, then, is wait until late next fall when Bob will again lay out two large tables of potatoes with names like Irish Cobbler (our favorite masher), Linzer, Kennebec, Shepody. It’s a dizzying list and the flavors and textures are dizzying, too. Because of Bob, we don’t eat many potatoes in the summer, when he has none for sale. Why eat something mediocre when you know what the real thing tastes like?

Cedar Creek Farms sells potatoes that taste the way they used to, grown because of their flavor and texture, not how they’ll look in the store or how long they keep. Isn’t that the way it should be?

Next: eating in season, or why you shouldn’t bother buying asparagus in November.


Anonymous said...

'Tattie scones! Highest and best use of a potato!

Rick Blechta said...

Any use of potatoes is a good one! I wrote a while back about baking potatoes in a leaf fire back when I was a kid. Wonderful flavor and a wonderful memory.

As Bob said to me today, “I’m a little nuts about potatoes.”

And we’re glad he is!

Thanks for writing in.

fyvie said...

Best potatoes I've ever had (... and beautiful flowers in his outdoor tables, too.)
Mr. Taylor is an absolute gentleman and you can see the joy he and his family gets from cultivating their spuds - over a hundred varieties, he says. Every size and shape - subtlety of texture and flavour imaginable.
A bit like "Norway's Svalbard Global Seed Vault" here in Ontario
... "save diversity of seeds and heritage breeds!" ... Farmers Feed Cities!