Former MasterChef contestant and founder of WanderSups Hannah Gregory from Suffolk lauds the humble baked potato
Those that know me know that autumn does not fill me with joy. Whilst what seems like the majority of the human race are rejoicing at the thought of pumpkin spice lattes, chunky knit sweaters and crisp walks, I’m over here working out where my next hit of Vit D is coming from, how to prolong the tan I worked so hard on and when is the last possible moment I can perform the dreaded task of switching over the seasonal wardrobes.
That being said, there is one thing that keeps me going. OK, there is more than one - there’s also Harry Potter marathons, cheese boards and red wine - but for the sake of this article there is one thing and that thing is the beloved spud. To be specific, the baked potato - or jacket, if you are that way inclined.
A creature of humble origins, it is so often overlooked yet possesses magical qualities: it can warm the coldest of bodies returning from one of those crisp autumn walks, it can pull on core memories so embedded in the crevices of our brains we forgot they existed, it can comfort one in the darkest depths, or it can simply fill you up with deliciousness for next to nothing.
When I think back to key baked potato moments in my life, there is quite the peppering; never taking centre stage because, let’s face it, it is a potato, but so often it has been there, watching from the sidelines, a constant in a somewhat dysfunctional and hectic upbringing. The one thing I could always rely on for stability and contentment. Even in the most impoverished situations, i.e. spending my whole student loan on day one of term or losing all paid work during a pandemic, I could lean on the spud to sustain me.
Perhaps growing up in a house that backed onto potato fields is how this love affair started. I remember with great fondness being handed a bucket and, armed with my trusty steed (a peppy Jack Russell named Sally), we were put to work. In my adult years I came to realise this was more to do with my parents’ need to get me out of the house during school holidays than a need for food, but let’s not focus on that.
Off we went, mission understood - not to come home till the bucket was full, only to dig in the top field so we could be seen from the office window. Scrabbling in the cold, damp dirt, fingernails black, Sally next to me furiously digging her own hole, snout covered in a film of dark soil making her have to stop and sneeze, not deterring until one of us found a golden tuber. Sometimes we were too late, the spud had holes or mould or was a little squishy to touch; these made the best things for Sally to fetch, so I could carry on with the job in hand.
Once the bucket was full, we would lug it back home and throw them into the potato store, reserving the best crop of the day for that evening’s supper, scrubbed, pricked, rolled in oil and salt and then into the Aga to bake - pure heaven. There is nothing, NOTHING in this world that beats an Aga potato.
It was at this house Mum hosted her infamous Bonfire Night parties - a gathering where everyone in the village was invited to dump their burnables on our muck heap and then return to see it all go up in flames whilst the kids ran around with sparklers and toffee apples. Mum, ever the host, would set up tables laden with huge bowls of chilli con carne and mountains of tin foil-wrapped baked potatoes to go with. It’s still a mystery to me as to why, but there were always some that would leave the skin, just scooping out the fluffy innards and then discarding the best bit - madness.
I would hover like a stray looking for scraps, making my swipe before the gnarly, crispy skins got tossed on the fire. The other kids could keep their toffee apples, all I was interested in was the salty, crispy, earthiness of the baked peel.
School was a miserable time for me. Always in trouble for having my head in the clouds, not applying myself etc, the one thing I looked forward to was lunch break, not because I could
play or chat with my friends but because from the day dot, my life has revolved around food - even school dinner food. Wednesday lunch was always baked potato - hundreds of the suckers sitting in huge metal trays, kids bustling in front of each other hoping they got the biggest. Don’t get me wrong, Aga potatoes these were not, the skin was papery and anaemic, the flesh flavourless and hard. Yet still it held a place in my heart, a place of comfort and warmth and familiarity.
Potato placed on plastic plate, we shuffled along the line to the topping portion of the journey - where a fierce-looking dinner lady armed with a ladle would unenthusiastically moan “beans, cheese or tuna” on repeat. Of course, there is only one right answer here, and with that a ladle of beans was slapped on the spud, a stingy sprinkling of powder-covered pre-grated cheese on top of that, and we were on our way, not forgetting to grab a mini pot of Flora spread on the way out - another backwards process in the schooling system: we all know the butter has to go under the beans and so began the task of scooping them off, reassembling the dish and praying that some of the cheese would melt - it never did.
And then I ate. I didn’t care if this wasn’t a quality spud or there wasn’t enough butter or the cheese hadn’t melted. For a brief 30 minutes I could forget I was at school and lose myself in carby paradise. This plate of joy would carry me through double maths - well it wouldn’t, it would put me into a food coma, meaning I dozed through double maths and that was even better.
At 17 I started working in the mecca that was H&M in the CentreMK. This was back when it was the forefront of shopping and quirky architecture - a giant oak tree in the middle of a mall? Wild! That oak tree died pretty quickly FYI.
I digress. With my new job, new income and new independence, a whole world opened up for me and in that new world was the lunch hour - there seems to be a theme here doesn’t there? But this lunch hour came with choices - Burger King, Nandos, McDonalds, M&S Foodhall. . . Where was a girl to start? And then, through a colleague that was a lot older and cooler than me, I discovered Absolutely Souper, a place I had never really taken much interest in because a) soup doesn’t count as food and b) I was yet to discover that independents are the way forward.
One day she asked if I wanted to get lunch with her. Aghast I had even been invited, I trotted along and this wasn’t just a soup shop, this was baked potato heaven. Perfectly cooked spuds churned out of some contraption that looked like it should live in a coal pit, and a bar, yes a whole bar, of toppings to choose from. It was here I was introduced to what I stand by as being the queen of potato toppings: sour cream, mature cheddar (melted of course) and crispy bacon, lovingly coined the CBC. The cold sourness of the cream against the steaming heat of the potato, the fatty saltiness of the bacon and the cheese - it was perfection.
From this day forward, this combo became my crutch into adult life. Too tired to cook? CBC potato. Dumped and feeling sorry for myself? CBC potato. Poorly and need comfort? CBC potato. In later years it has formed part of my ‘single girl behaviour’ evenings - you know the ones where your partner heads out and you have the whole house to yourself and don’t have to worry about hearing anyone eat or breathe and can be alone in sheer bliss? This is the perfect time for a CBC potato.
Although I am still haunted by a memory of being stood up on a date and so, of course, licking my wounds with a CBC potato. However, the guy in question - terribly handsome and way out of my league - felt bad and turned up at my flat to surprise me. I buzzed him in and he was greeted by a smoke-filled one-bed apartment (the burning oil in the oven and the poor ventilation system was not a great combo), that lingering smell of bacon fat and me in a T-shirt covered with grease stains.
As my career as a chef has taken off, my beloved baked potato still stands proud. After two months of cooking for the rich and famous on a Greek island, being spoiled by the best the Med had to offer, the first thing I did when I came home was crank that oven, reach for the Maldon and crisp up a spud. Whilst I am yet to offer a baked potato on my private dining menus, a mini version does appear as a canapé when the time calls: baked, innard scooped out and mixed with Baron Bigod, piped back in and then crowned with the oozy Suffolk cheese. Or we could go one further and top with caviar, as per the viral trend currently doing the rounds on Tik Tok.
Be it a traditional jacket, full of butter and topped with your favourite toppings, or a more modern, refined twist, the baked potato is a thing of glory and should never be thought of as anything less.
Find out about Hannah’s upcoming Supper Clubs and what she is currently coooking via Instagram@Wandersups or visit www.wandersups.com