One of the great comfort foods of winter is a baked potato. But you have to make sure it is the right sort of potato - size is not enough.
In fact Tesco, amongst others, run taste panels to sort out just what people like. It seems that some people like waxy potatoes for baking, while others prefer floury varieties. The Potato Council gives ratings on the waxy / floury scale for a number of popular varieties on www.lovepotatoes.co.uk , so you can see which varieties suit the purpose you have in mind - whether it is roasting, mashing, salads, baking and so on - and what you are likely to like.
All of which is fine if the loose baking potatoes are labelled (gripe, gripe), so that everybody knows what they are getting. Over the Christmas period Tesco locally put out unlabelled "baking" potatoes, which seem to have been Harmony, Marfona and Estima - all of which are fine if you like the waxy end of the spectrum. If you prefer floury, look out for King Edward, Maris Piper (bred in Trumpington), Vale Sovereign, Romano, Desirée and Santé.
For more information about potatoes, particularly if you are thinking of growing some and would like to be warned about susceptibility to pests and diseases, see www.varieties.potato.org.uk.
The Thompson & Morgan Kitchen Garden catalogue is quite informative too. It has 12 pages given over to potatoes. If you wish to buy tubers from them do place your order soon; they ran out of some varieties quite early last years, and demand may well be up this year, as more people think about the pleasures and lower prices involved in growing your own (www.thompson-morgan.com). Local garden centres also sell potato tubers, and, unlike mail order, they may be loose rather than be pre-packaged, so that you can choose exactly the number and mix you want.
Conversations nowadays often seem to turn to discussing good value and being careful with the food budget. A very useful website which helps you find local food is www.bigbarn.co.uk, with the slogan "local and cheaper".
Type in your post code, and you'll get maps showing local producers, some of whom you maybe didn't know existed. A bright red "£" sign indicates that the food is cheaper than in a supermarket. (Though I think this is often an under-estimate.) The site also offers internet ordering from producers who don't run web sites. It is well worth signing up for the monthly newsletter, which provides special offers, recipes, seasonal advice and also some comments on current themes and events. Rather startlingly, this month's newsletter offers the opinion that of every pound spent in a British supermarket, only 9p goes to the farmer.
We used Big Barn to find and pay for a free-range goose from Munns near Chatteris, and were bowled over by the result. On Christmas Day the deep crispness of the skin, the tiny layer of fat and the succulence and taste of the flesh were just sensational. Our bird weighed a tickle under 5kg, came with a half kilo bag of goose fat plus a bag with the giblets, and, including delivery, cost £37. Beat that.
The birds, which arrive at the farm in June as day old goslings, spend their days out in the fields. They are then slaughtered on the farm, dry plucked and then hung for 10 days, all of which makes a substantial difference to quality and taste. We were certainly impressed, and there was no debate on the annual question of whether next year's bird should be a Bronze, or a Norfolk black or free-range or organic or better a brace of barbary duck. The unanimous decision was that a free-range goose is the answer, and that Munns are the people to go to.
Sadly, Munns only produce geese for Christmas, but their goose fat, duck fat and their cold-pressed rapeseed oil are available all year. (www.laemunns.com includes details of stockists.)
Another way of getting very good value is to bulk buy, and here the farm shops can beat the supermarkets hands down. A very topical example (and to bring this column full circle) is that of potatoes. This is not a one day wonder, or a maverick single store, or a temporary loss leader, but a case of a good number of farm shops selling specified varieties.
Thus Hackers (on the A14, just past the Cambridge Crematorium) will sell you 25 kilos of Cara or Maris Piper for £5, or 12.5 kilos for £2.50.
Rectory Farm at Milton (www.rectoryfarmshop.co.uk) charge £4.99 for 25kg of Marfona or Desirée (and also do bags sized at 10kg, 5kg and 2.5kg).
Oxholme Farm at Hilton has Saxon and Desirée at £5 for 25kg, or £2.50 for a 12.5kg.
Buckinghams, at 100 Histon Road, Cottenham have organic Agria - a chipping potato - for £4 for 12.5kg.
Darwin Nursery on the Newmarket Rd, between the Park & Ride and the Quy interchange, have King Edwards, Cara, Wilja and Desirée at £5.50 for 25kg, or £3.54 for 12.5kg.
The biggest choice of all is to be found in Pidley at Park Farm on Somersham Road, where the potatoes come in 5kg, 10kg or 25kg bags, The varieties available are Maris Piper and Victoria (£5.50 for 25kg), Picasso, Wilja and Stemster (£6 for 25kg) and King Edward (£7 for 25kg). There is also a category labelled "Big & Ugly", which covers poor shapes, marks and blemishes. At £3 for 25kg, this mixed bunch (mainly Stemster and Wilja) is seemingly rather popular with people who like baking potatoes.
Image of potatoes by FotoosVanRobin courtesy of Creative Commons