13 DECEMBER 1963, Page 32

Consuming Interest

Gone to Pot


IN the editorial for this quarter's Wine and Foods magazine M. Andre Simon quotes some recent Board of Trade statistics con- cerning the increased national consumption of beef, pork, poultry and butter. M. Simon finds good reason for the in- creases. Beef, he points out, stands up to careless cooking better than lamb and mutton. Poultry means battery birds for those who cannot bother to cook at all. Butter is better than margarine, and if it is also more expensive M. Simon thinks that price means little in these days. He admits failure, however, to find any plausible reason for the drop in the consumption of potatoes from the average of 227 lb. per head in 1961 to 207 lb. in 1962. Now M. Andre Simon is not and, as he is the first to admit, never has been a practising cook. At the age of eighty-seven he would hardly be consuming 227 lb. or even 207 lb. of potatoes per year (does anybody? It seems hard to believe) and so be has not had occasion to observe that our methods of potato cooking, unchanged for some 150 years, and evolved at a time when potatoes and cooks were both of a very different species from their 1963 equivalents, are totally unsuitable to modern conditions and seldom produce acceptable potatoes. To me it is very surprising indeed that the fall in potato consumption is as small as 20 lb. in one year. Modern English potatoes, grown for high yield and their blight-resistant and keep- ing qualities, are possessed also of a peculiar propensity to disintegrate on the outside while remaining hard within (a month ago I quoted in this column the immortal phrase of _the Potato Marketing Board upon this subject). Possibly this is a transitory fault, due, as with commercially grown tomatoes, to the attempt to evolve an all-purpose potato having arrived at the stage where the no-purpose potato is the only one we have.

The marketing of scrubbed potatoes could have

been a step forward. That as small a package as a 3 lb. bag may, and regularly does, contain one huge potato, five in assorted sizes, and three too small to bother with, is no step in any direction. While awaiting the evolution of at least one potato for boiling and one for baking (it is unrealistic for the Potato Marketing Board's publicity agents to pretend that because commercial potatoes are called by different names they have any other distinguishing characteristics) the present remedy is for anyone Who possesses a heavy old.. fashioned unenamelled black cast-iron casserole. stew pot or even cauldron (but a tight-fitting lid is essential) to experiment with it for the oven- cooking of potatoes. Such a pot, used in a slow oven, can do much to eliminate the trials and tribulations of the daily potato-cooking task. For this method potatoes need not all be the same size. They must simply be sound and clean and unpeeled. Scrub them and pile them into the pot just as they are, adding no liquid - whatsoever. Cover the pot. Put it in a moderate to slow oven. Leave the potatoes to cook for anything from 11 to 2f hours, according to the temperature of the oven and the position in it of the pot. At maintained temperature of 330 deg. F. (gas No 3), all the potatoes, always excepting the freak- ishly gigantic, will be cooked in 11 to 11 hours. For a temperature of 290 deg. F. (gas No. 1) allow about 2 to 21 hours. The point about this system is that the smaller potatoes, although already cooked, will not disintegrate while the larger are taking their little extra time. When all are tender (test the largest with a thin steel skewer), no harm will be done by leaving then) another fifteen to twenty minutes. Should the oven space be needed for the reheating of some other dish, put the potato-pot to the side of the stove or into the plate drawer. At this stage a clean teacloth, thickly folded beneath the lid, will absorb steam and at the same time keep the potatoes hot. It will be obvious that the system is particularly suited to solid fuel cookers. For people who cannot manage the extra hour of cooking time, there is always the possibility of trying the method at least for salads and saute potatoes, neither of which can be made at all successfully with the waterlogged potatoes produced by the boiling of the English commer- cial varieties.

To my taste pot-baked potatoes are much superior to the ordinary jacket-baked variety. In pot-baking there is no shrinkage, no shrivelling of the skins and no waste. It is, as can be seen, combined-purpose method for an otherwise no. purpose product. It gives the potatoes a flavour and even a faint smell of a home-grown garden vegetable. This oven pot-system derives from a form of waterless cooking once much used in country districts of south-western France, in the days when charcoal or wood were the common cook- ing fuels. The pot used was called a diable. II was of primitive, earthenware, unglazed, excel), tionally porous, placed directly in the embers and used for the dry-cooking of chestnuts as well as of potatoes. Madame Cadec of Soho made 3 gallant attempt at importing the diable. Alas, the extreme fragility and brittleness of the diable made it virtually untransportable. It is now

*Condd Nast Publications, Ss. in any case becoming obsolete. Living in dread of the day when my own last surviving specimen, in constant use, translated in my kitchen into an oven-pot—frequently borrowed by friends who believe it to be possessed of magical properties, which of course it is—must inevitably go the way of all its predecessors, experiments with alternatives became imperative. Unenamel- led cast-iron, porous, indestructible was the

obvious choice. If anything, it works of and more quickly, for the oven cooking of potatoes, than the old rustic unglazed earthenware.

It should be added that vitreous-enamelled pots work on the same system as the unenamel- led ones, but the potatoes take longer to cook and tend to become damp; and that French cast- iron pots, unenamelled but coated inside with a rust-proof lining, are stocked by Liberty's in Regent Street, the General Trading Company in Shiane Street and other such establishments where an image of the homely kitchen is cultivated.