Epicure, as a heritage variety, can be grown anywhere at any time of the year but the really special Epicure potatoes are the first ones of the season from Ayrshire.
The Early Ayrshire Epicures rose to prominence in the era of genuine seasonality, before cold storage of potatoes through the winter, and when new potatoes into the Glasgow markets from elsewhere were far too expensive. Early Ayrshire Epicures were a real highlight in the food calendar in industrial and urban Glasgow. As the railways spread in the second half of the 19th century, Early Ayrshire Epicures became known and highly anticipated across Scotland. No doubt other varieties were tried, but Epicure is the one that stood the test of time and is fondly remembered and sought after. The Epicures of Ayrshire were held in high esteem for their very special flavour and became synonymous with Ayrshire, a coastal region in SW Scotland. Bred in 1897, popular by 1906, and ‘the one’ by 1913!
Epicure is small in size, 15 – 70mm diameter, due to its young age. The potato is round or oval in shape with a soft skin. Its terroir, immaturity, freshness and locale make it quite unique. It has a slightly fluffy fine skin, a lightly nutty flavour and aroma flavour and a creamy texture and colour.
The micro-climate of SW Scotland is ideal for growing potatoes with a reliable rainfall from March to May, allowing tubers to swell at the critical time to produce a good yield. The light sandy coastal soils, ideal for tattie production, are quick to warm up in spring, the Gulf Stream bringing a mild frost free climate to the region, sheltered by its geographical position and gentle slopes.
Ayrshire is a rural region yet easily accessible to the urban populations of Glasgow and surrounding towns. The railways linked them further and not only did Ayrshire provide valuable food for citizens, the cities supplied the “tattie howkers” needed for harvest. There were also Irish migratory workers, a close-knit community who shared what they had, from pots and pans to blankets and bedding. At the outset of WWII, homegrown food was vital and once again it was Ayrshire that contributed greatly to food on the table. The region by this time was famous for its early potatoes and has been part of the social and economic fabric since the mid 19th C and still recognised in Scotland today.
The traditional season for Early Ayrshire Epicures is May to July, since the land is warm enough for planting from early February (much earlier than land could be planted inland in the potato areas of the east coast). The tubers are chitted (sprouted) to get off to a fast start after planting. It was sufficiently hardy to withstand inclement weather and can quickly recover from wind or frost damage. Even in a drought, it will produce a crop. The crop was often fertilised by local seaweed and horse manure brought back from Glasgow on the trains. Epicures do not take well to washing and packing so best sold loose, not pre-packed. ‘Chitting’ is the name given to boxing up the seed potatoes where they could start to sprout, ready for early planting. Any that are too small to be eaten or sold were put into boxes and preserved as seed for the following spring. To keep them dry and frost-free they were often stored on the joists of byres where the warmth of the animals below spared them from frosts, otherwise they would need building with a stove for over winter.
Modern varietals have taken over and larger companies move onto more commercial types, often unfortunately selling them as earlies but they are not Epicures so not the true original genuine Early Ayrshire Epicure Potato.
The growing region of Epicure is under pressure from higher yielding characterless modern varieties better suited to supermarket demands of smooth skins, shallow eyes and efficient commercial washing. The traditional style, texture and flavour of Epicure will be superseded by the more generic modern varieties, selected for higher yielding and mechanised farming and distribution systems. The PGI ‘Ayrshire earlies’ do not specify they should be Epicure, only that they be an early variety. SF Ark of Taste is therefore key to retaining the tradition and historical accuracy of the Epicure.
Gardeners and consumers seek out Early Ayrshire Epicure Potatoes so a few seed potato merchants keep a small stock as they are such an important part of Scotland’s history.
Those who know of the Epicure will wait with anticipation for Early Ayrshire Epicure Potatoes to appear. Some also grow their own although conditions have to be right.
Classically the less you do to an Early Ayrshire Epicure the better. Rinse. Steam or boil until just soft. Never peel. Do not mash although some chefs ‘crush’ them roughly for effect. Serve with high quality butter and a little salt. Also delicious cooked and cold in salads. If adding a dressing, also delicious, best to add the ingredients when the potatoes are still warm for maximum effect. A traditional potato salad may have sour cream or mayonnaise and spring onions, or a vinaigrette dressing with seasonal herbs added.
Cooked, hot Early Ayrshire Epicures are also tasty tossed in butter along with a little pinhead oatmeal to make traditional oatmeal potatoes.