Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Luxury new potatoes
Like the Auvergne, the Ile de Ré has a potato fetish. But here what they celebrate is the spring potato, the sweet and dainty pomme de terre primeur de l'Ile de Ré. It has an official season - from early May to the end of June - and sells in Paris and Nice at the luxury price of around €12 a kilogram (about $8 a pound). What makes it special is the island's unique sandy terroir combined with the seaweed used as fertiliser, which is said to give the potatoes a subtle marine taste.
We were lucky enough to arrive on the Ile de Ré at the start of the potato season, which coincided with the presidential election on Sunday. Outside the polling station on the island's capital of St-Martin de Ré, chefs were serving the new potatoes topped with salmon eggs or filled with cheese and accompanied by the crisp white local wine - reason enough to get out and vote.
I couldn't wait to get my hands on some potatoes at the market, which takes place every day on the island's capital of St-Martin de Ré. The market isn't cheap - St-Martin is the St-Tropez of the Atlantic coast, attracting French celebrities and politicians - but the local potatoes are a relative bargain at €3-€4 a kilo. I bought a couple of kilos and rushed them home, knowing that they are picked fresh every day to prevent their natural sugars from turning into starch (a bit like garden peas or corn). As we were about to leave the covered market I turned back for some thick and creamy fromage blanc from the pristine dairy stand displaying local cheeses.
To preserve the texture and sweetness of new potatoes it's best to bring the water to a boil before adding them to the pot. I threw in some local sea salt mixed with herbs and multicolored peppercorns, which the owners of the house use to flavor everything they cook. These deluxe potatoes need little or no adornment, but I couldn't resist mixing the fromage blanc with plenty of chopped chives to spoon over their buttery flesh. I served them with a whopper of a line-caught sea bass (enough for six of us) topped with a lime and ginger vinaigrette, but they could easily have starred on their own with a green salad. Whether we could really detect the taste of seaweed I can't say for sure, but I like to think so.