The description on British hotel dining-room menus in the early 1960s—back when I was fortunate enough to be taken to such exciting places—was always “creamed potatoes”. Never “mashed potato”, let alone the diminutive “mash”. Creamed potatoes were dead posh. They were very smooth, and you could really taste the butter and hot milk. Almost without exception, they’d be silver-served (spooned by the waiter onto your plate) from a deep, silver-plated, oval dish—small or large, depending on how many portions had been ordered. Back then, it was unheard of not to order such accompaniments à la carte.
Eating grilled lamb cutlets with mint sauce and gravy was unthinkable without a generous dollop of these luxuriously creamed tubers (I may have been forced to have sliced runner beans too, but these would be eaten swiftly, to get them off the plate as soon as possible). The final pleasure, however, was scooping up the remaining slurry of gravy, mint sauce and loosening potato with a spoon. As an eager boy who enjoyed his food, I loved everything about those grown-up salons, with their polished mahogany tables, hunting-scene place mats, cut glass, linen napkins and white-jacketed waiters of a certain age—and, it should be said, a certain style.
These days, those delicious creamed potatoes—along with their accompanying salons and waiters—have largely disappeared. The fashion now is for either some inappropriately scented mash, or an absurdly rich one that can almost be poured. I care little for most of the former, and truly loathe the latter. And this even though I made a saffron-flavoured mash early in my cooking career, circa 1983. Made with olive oil instead of butter—which better marries with saffron—it’s excellent eaten with simply cooked fish. The only other flavouring I occasionally use is very finely sliced spring onion, to make that much-loved Irish dish, colcannon.
Yet unsuitable flavours continue to afflict mashed potato. For me, mustard and horseradish mash do not work, for all their popularity. Heat is the death of both seed and rhizome, so once mixed into hot potato purée, their pungency soon diminishes. Bewildered cooks add more and more to the mix to compensate for the fact that nothing seems to be happening. As for pommes purée—a cardiac- arrest-inducing, butter-cream-slop that is the darling of Michelin-obsessed chefs—I can only see this as the work of a kitchen devil.
To get the right consistency, first either steam or boil potatoes that have been peeled and cut into medium chunks. I’ve found that mashing or puréeing potatoes in a mouli-legumes—a hand-cranked vegetable mill—has always given fine results. The smallest-holed disk of the mouli makes the smoothest purée; the slightly larger one is perfectly fine for mash to top a shepherd’s or fish pie. I always use the mouli to drain the potatoes, too, as it saves washing up: just tip the potatoes into the mouli over the sink, then return them to drain over the pan you cooked them in. Leave them there for two to three minutes, give them a quick shake and then mouli away (though don’t forget to chuck out any potato water that’s in the pan first, as I once did, or you’ll end up with potato slop). Mash the potatoes while they’re still hot: not only do they pass through the disk a lot faster but, more importantly, working cold potatoes will bring out gluey starch in a trice. And if you only need a small amount of mash, a potato ricer is ideal. This resembles a giant garlic press, and mashes the potato in one simple move, further reducing any chance of the starch becoming gluey. I always use one of these to make potato gnocchi, when lightness and speed are paramount.
For me, perfect, simple mashed potatoes are finished with nothing more than butter, milk, salt and pepper. I allow a thick slice of butter and two to three tablespoons of full-cream milk per large potato. The butter should be kitchen-temperature, and the milk hot; beat them both into the processed potato deftly and thoroughly. Add a touch of freshly grated nutmeg if you like, but don’t overdo it. Serve immediately.
Potatoes Use floury varieties such as main-crop King Edwards or Maris Piper, or, earlier in the year, the yellow-fleshed Wilja. All of these will fluff up nicely if you treat them right.
Butter The kind made from Channel Islands’ milk is my favourite—Waitrose sells Guernsey Dairy butter, though only the salted kind.
Mouli-legumes You can pick up smaller, baby varieties for around £15-20, but if you fancy something a little more heavy-duty, look for the larger, stainless-steel moulis made by Kuchenprofi or Gefu.
Pepper I prefer the flavour of ready-ground white pepper in my creamed potatoes; it also disappears into the purée rather nicely.