Andy Lynes
 food journalist and writer



25 October 2007


I got totally mashed yesterday. No, I'm not having to resort to alcohol because of the pressures of work. I was asked judge the Mash Challenge organised by the British Potato Council (BPC) at the Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College. It's true - I lead a life of unrelenting glamour and I'll be damned if I'm going to apologise for it.

The reason I found myself in west London slightly too early in the morning was due to one of our most traditional and unassuming side dishes having been forced into the spotlight by some unexpected publicity. Not by a chef however, but by a sporting personality.

According to the BPC, former World Boxing Association Featherweight Champion Barry McGuigan's mash-tastic appearances on ITV's Hell's Kitchen, where he was seen whipping up huge bowls of potatoes night after night, has resulted in numerous visits to the mash recipe pages on the Council's website (

Recognising a marketing opportunity when they saw one, the BPC invited McGuigan to pit his mash making skills against 20 catering students "in a bid to find Britain's ultimate mashed potato recipe." I had cynically imagined that the sporting star would turn up, say a few words, pose for pictures and disappear to his next engagement.

To his considerable credit, McGuigan was already dressed in whites and in the kitchen long before us judges rolled up to claim our free coffee and biscuits. He cooked his own batch of mash (with the assistance of chef Tim Payne), patiently posed for numerous camera phone pictures with the students and happily stayed for the duration of the event.

Blind tasting twenty bowls of mash might sound like a dull way to spend your Tuesday morning but in fact it was fascinating to discover how different such a simple product could taste. We tried three readily available varieties - King Edward, Wilja and Desiree - all of which score pretty highly on the floury end of the waxy to floury scale. Each variety was prepared in six different ways; with hot milk; with hot milk and lightly salted English butter; with olive oil; with single or double cream; with crème fraîche and with single cream and butter.

Making up the 20 blind tasted samples were Barry's recipe (which he acknowledged was in fact from "The Don" i.e. Marco Pierre White) and the college's own recipe. Unsurprisingly perhaps (although I can personally attest that this was no fixed match) Barry/Marco's recipe came out on top. A kilo of diced Desiree were cooked in a litre of water and 10g of salt and then passed twice through a mouli and twice through a tamis or drum sieve. Finally, ungodly amounts of butter (500grams in fact) and milk were beaten into the mix. Fantastic.

Less impressive were the versions made with what was probably not top quality olive oil which overpowered the potato flavour big time. One judge spat out the mash made with crème fraiche. My comment about it simply read "vile".

In a move reminiscent of Gordon Ramsay cooking Granny Smiths at a Bramley apple promotional event, Tim Payne publicly declared that he would never use an English potato for mash, preferring waxy French varieties such as Bellefontaine or Ratte. He also prefers Jersey to English butter for the golden colour it lends to the finished product. And in a final myth-busting proclamation, he claimed that it's fine to make your mash in a Robot Coupe - as long your spuds are fresh and have been stored correctly, they won't go gluey.

That got me thinking - there must be nearly as many methods of making mash as there are chefs. In a totally unscientific experiment, I phoned round a few to see if my hunch was right. My sample size was dictated by who would actually pick up the phone or return my voice messages, and how many calls I could fit into a morning, bearing in mind that I'd be spending far longer swapping industry gossip than talking about potatoes. So, here's, um, five results.

Tim Johnson of Apicius restaurant in Cranbrook is a self confessed potato obsessive. When he can get them, he uses the floury Aphrodite variety which achieves the dry, light and fluffy texture he looks for. Estima are his second choice. Johnson bakes rather than boils his potatoes, pricking them every 20 minutes during the cooking process to ensure as much steam as possible escapes. Then he mashes the flesh before adding boiling Jersey whipping cream, salt and cayenne pepper (a seasoning also favoured by Johnson's mentor Nico Ladenis).

Tom Kerridge of the Hand and Flowers in Marlow says that he makes a potato puree rather than a mash and therefore prefers Maris Piper for its slightly waxy flesh. He keeps the boiled potatoes warm while he passes them through a mouli and then a drum sieve; if they go cold, the puree will be gluey (he reckons a Robot Coupe will also make for a gluey end result.) He finishes the potatoes with equal quantities of milk, butter and cream.

Matthew Tomkinson of The Goose in Britwell Salome employs two different recipes, both made with red skinned potatoes. For dishes on his set lunch menu, he serves a Desiree mash made with the boiled and mouli-ed spuds finished with butter and cream. When it comes to a la carte, he serves a richer puree made with a waxy variety such as Pink Fir Apples which he additionally passed through a drum sieve. Tomkinson says he's had some success making his mash in a Robot Coupe but gave up as the result was no better than making it by hand and it just created more washing up.

Martin Hadden of Ockenden Manor in Cuckfield believes that there's no single variety of potato that's good for mash. How and where the potatoes are grown and storage conditions including temperature and humidity mean that he needs to keep a close eye on how various varieties perform throughout the year.

Bruce Poole of Chez Bruce says that he's got better things to do than worry about how old the Desiree potatoes he uses exclusively for his mash are, but agrees that they can vary on occasion. He likes the variety because they boil evenly and don't collapse in the water. They are lower in starch than some other types which he says makes for a good consistency of mash. Depending on what he's serving the potato with, he finishes the mash with half butter and half milk or half olive oil and half milk. Infusing the milk with things like saffron, garlic or thyme is always a good idea he says.

So what have we proved? That chefs like a good chinwag has been put beyond doubt. But as to waxy vs floury, hand made or machine processed, mashed or pureed, flavoured or plain, the jury it seems it still out. Long live mash.