This wonderful vegetable can be found in the diet of almost every country. For the British, the thought of living without ever eating a spud, or tattie, is unthinkable, and for a fan of Indian cuisine, like myself, the thought of not eating saag aloo ever again is too much to bear. The Swiss grate them and make them into rosti, Americans turn them into French fries to be served alongside hamburgers and the French bake slices of them smothered in cream to make a gratin. Hash browns, potato bread, Jansson’s temptation, pomme purée, potato salad and my own father’s mock whitebait fritters - they all need potatoes.
The potato is a wonder food in many ways, from the enormous amount of protein, vitamin C and nutrition it can produce per hectare compared with other crops, through to the vast array of differing climatic conditions in which it can thrive. In fact, it’s such an important food crop that the United Nations declared 2008 the ‘International Year of the Potato’.
However, these delicious tuberous roots, a relative of the tomato and aubergine, started their life way back, high up in the Andes of South America, in the lands we now think of as Peru and Bolivia. In fact, the shores of Lake Titicaca have recently been credited as being the most likely site of the original potato as we know it today. Potatoes were introduced into Europe throughout the 1500s, but when they first appeared on European shores there was some dissent as to whether they were safe to eat as they belong to the Deadly Nightshade plant family and some people felt they might be poisonous. Eventually though, the potato won over the sceptics and it soon began its absorption into the world’s myriad evolving cuisines. European traders and migrants took the plant with them on their travels, planting them wherever they would grow and thus potatoes arrived in India, North America, Africa and pretty much everywhere else. The first British settlers brought plants with them to Australia and New Zealand, and these days a typical Kiwi Sunday roast just wouldn’t be complete without roast potatoes - alongside our other imports lamb and mint sauce!
I like nothing better than a boiled new potato, lightly salted and drizzled with olive oil or melted butter. Add some shredded mint leaves and they’re the perfect accompaniment to everything from grilled lamb chops through to a whole baked fish. On the other hand, in the middle of winter I love to mash large floury potatoes with an excessive amount of cream, mustard and butter and serve it with a meaty stew or sautéed field mushrooms and buttered cabbage. There are over 5000 varieties of potato, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever see more than a handful - unless you head to Lima, Peru, and do some research through the International Potato Centre. On the other hand, they’re incredibly easy to grow, and as with most vegetables these days, there’s a resurgence in so-called heirloom or heritage varieties, which will broaden your experience.
© 2010 Peter Gordon. All rights reserved.