It’s one of the most delicate tastes that the palate can perceive, enriched by a nuance of lemon, a salty aftertaste and a vague top note of walnut. But it’s not only the taste that renders this food so unique: the Bonnotte, a rare species of potato, grows only in a tiny strip of land less than fifty square meters in area, and is hand-picked during just one week per year.
We’re on the Île de Noirmoutier, an Island situated off France’s Atlantic coast – in the Bay of Biscay to be exact. The secret of this little-known corner of the world, where this rare tuber is cultivated, lies in its soil – lightly sandy, it absorbs the scent of the ocean and owes its fertilization to nutrient, saline-rich seaweed and algae.
And it’s the flavour of the sea that makes the Curriculum Saporis able to command the exorbitant price of 500 Euros per kilogram: if you think it sounds excessive, you need to keep in mind the way it’s grown and harvested. Obviously the limited land space in which it has to grow plays a big part: of the island’s 550 hectares dedicated to agriculture, the Bonnotte potato occupies only 5%. But the price is so high because of the harvesting method: to guarantee the quality of the product, fragile and delicate as it is, the Bonnotte must be picked one by one, and strictly by hand.
Over the course of seven days – usually in May – 2,500 potato pickers gather at dawn and work until sunset so that the world’s finest gourmet tables can boast the presence of this natural gems, buried in the dirt. There’s a wide range of recipes that call for this golden tuber: from gateaux to soups, salads, creams and purées. But whatever a chef decides to make from the Bonnotte, it’s crucial that he doesn’t peel the potato – as the skin guarantees the succulent flavour and unique taste, and is just as important as the flesh. After all, it’s the potato skin that absorbs all of the aromas of the soil and the nearby sea water, taking on that unique saline taste.
But over the last few months, the legendary Bonnotte potato has been facing a rather threatening adversary. The British supermarket chain Tesco has begun commercializing the Bonnotte potato, selling them below cost at 2.65 dollars per kilo. How is this possible? Simple, all they had to do was find somewhere else to grow the potatoes at a lower price. And on the other side of the Channel, on English territory, the Isle of Jersey features a climate very similar to that of the Île de Noirmoutier, with a soil that also resembles its French counterpart. On the Isle of Jersey, fertilization is provoked by the accumulation of algae, with the same quantity of sea salt.
So France vs. Great Britain: who will win the Bonnotte face-off? The low cost version has just appeared on the markets. It’s the foodies who will call the winner.