On the sheer slopes of Jersey’s coastal ‘côtils’, the same scene has played out to the watchful sea each January for the last 140 years: a procession of figures descend in single file and plant the early Jersey Royal potato crop – taking care to position delicate shoots pointing skywards.
This bucolic planting ritual is just one of several of the island’s celebrated farming traditions, preserved through generations, that set Jersey Royals apart from other early potato varieties, according to suppliers.
From collecting seaweed, or ‘vraic’ as it is known locally, during the winter months to fertilise the crop; to the cable-and-winch system used to lower workers onto the steep embankments to gently release the soil at harvest before, one by one, pickers follow, mindful of the potatoes’ delicate skin. Each century-old practice is designed to preserve the early Jersey Royals’ unique quality and sweet, nutty taste.
Typically harvested in mid- to late-March, the arrival of Jersey’s côtils-grown potatoes on dinner plates across the UK has historically heralded the start of spring. And this year will be no exception, says Nigel Holliday of The Jersey Royal Company, which supplies around 65 per cent of the island’s exports.
“We’ve been busy planting the côtils throughout January, but the conditions became too wet towards the end of the month due to heavy rain, so we had to stop. But we’ll catch up when we get dry periods over the coming days,” he says, speaking in early February.
Jersey’s côtils are ideal for growing potatoes during the colder, wetter winter months because rain runs off the vertiginous slopes, which in turn get the morning sun – meaning young plants are less susceptible to frost damage, Holliday explains.
Nevertheless, the island’s topographical advantages could not prevent a difficult planting season last year – one of the worst on record, says Holliday –when Jersey was hit with the second-wettest winter since 1894, with no less than three named storms in February alone. This was followed by two months of drought. Total Jersey Royal yields (early and main season crop combined) were down by about one third as a result.
“We will hopefully have a better season this year,” he says. “Growing conditions are wet, but not to the extremes of last year so far. And it’s so early that we will catch up with plantings. We’re looking forward to getting some drier weather.”
Production delays can have a huge impact on Jersey Royal availability because these potatoes have such a short seasonal window, Holliday explains. Planting shifts from the coastal hills to inland fields for main-season planting from February, giving rise to a March-to-July export period when typically around 30,000 tonnes are shipped to mainland UK – weather permitting.
It is precisely because of the variety’s relatively brief annual appearance on supermarket shelves that promotional efforts are crucial each season to remind consumers of its existence.
The Jersey Royal Company and Albert Bartlett, together with funding from local government, run a generic promotional campaign to ‘push’ the brand – which enjoys protected PGI status – each year, says Holliday. In ‘normal’, pre-pandemic times, the campaign might involve pop-up shops, in-store promotions and wholesale market events. But this spring, just like the last one, the campaign will rely on social media to get the story of this heritage variety out to the general public. That shouldn’t cause a problem, though.
“Last March, engagement was higher than ever before when we posted about our product,” says Holliday. “That’s because, due to lockdown, people were at home, engaging with social media more.
“As a result of the pandemic and lockdown, people are willing to spend more on groceries and are focusing more on cooking,” he continues. “This presents us with a great opportunity from a social media aspect to get ‘foodies’ to buy into Jerseys, which are such versatile and delicious potatoes.”
As a result, Holliday is optimistic about sales this year. “I think demand will be good,” he says. “Restaurants are closed, so obviously sales to foodservice will be down. But supermarkets are thriving. Hopefully demand there will be very strong.”