(Solanum tuberosum— Family Solanaceae)
Potato, Irish potato, common potato
papa (Latin America)
Before 6000 BCE, the first wild potatoes were being collected from high plateaus that stretched between Cusco and Lake Titicaca in South America.
Of the eight different species of potato in existence, it is known that the Andean farmers recognized as many as 5,000 different varieties.
Some farmers today still grow up to forty-five different varieties in their tiny fields along the steep mountainsides. Typically for a staple food, there are more than 1,000 different names for the potato in the Quechua language alone.
These first tubers were small, misshapen, and knobbly, of many colours, and so bitter that special techniques were employed to make them edible. The truly amazing thing is that they even bothered to try!
Some potatoes can be found growing as high as 13,000 feet and, obviously, very resistant to frost. Others are better adapted to warmer and drier climates.
The shape and colour of the potato varies enormously from yellow,
round and twisted, to purple,
long and straight.
However, 80% of all the potatoes grown in the US and Canada stem from just six varieties of only one species, Solanum tuberosum.
Scientists at Peru’s International Potato Center are working feverishly to save, from extinction, as many as they can of the small, genetically valuable, Andean potatoes.
Many of their farmers are being pressured into planting higher-yield modern varieties and are not cultivating the older varieties much anymore. A major part of the work at the Potato Center is to help adapt the potato cultivation to the lower, humid zones of the tropics.
The first Europeans encountered the potato in 1537 in what is now Colombia. They belonged to the Spanish forces of Jiminez De Quesada, who entered a village after the inhabitants had fled and found maize, beans, and “truffles”, which were described as having a good flavor and a delicacy of the Indians.
These “truffles” were potatoes and were promptly introduced into Spain and soon after into Italy, where they did not become a success. This was attributed to their watery, bitter nature; and they could not be successfully grown in the warmer climates. They also had to compete with other newly, more flavourful, tubers of the sweet potato and artichoke.
In 1770, Captain Cook introduced it into Australasia, where it became common fare by the middle of the next century. It is thought that the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the 16th century although Sir John Hawkins is reputed to have brought them to England in 1563
Extensive cultivation did not begin until Sir Francis Drake brought more back in 1586 after battling the Spaniards in the Caribbean.
Sir Walter Raleigh is thought to have introduced them into Ireland, and later presented some to Elizabeth I. Her cook is said to have discarded the tubers and cooked the leaves, which did not help with its popularity.
Except for Ireland, which remains the largest consumer, the potato did not become popular in Britain. In the north of Ireland and Scotland, Protestants would not plant it because it was not mentioned in the Bible; but Catholics dispelled this notion by sprinkling their seed potatoes with holy water and planting them on Good Friday.
Elsewhere in Europe, royal or governmental edicts promoted the cause of the potato. In Sweden, there was such an edict in 1764. In Prussia, Frederick the Great ordered cultivation on a large scale in Silesia and Pomerania.
In 1784, Benjamin Thompson, better known as Count Rumford, the famous American scientist, inventor, soldier, and adventurer, entered the service of the Royal Bavarian government to reorganize the workhouse system. The inmates of these “Houses of Industry” were fed as economically as possible on bread and thin gruel.
Rumford contrived to make the gruel incredibly cheap by substituting potatoes for the barley being used. Yet, despite the gnawing hunger of the inmates, Rumford had to conceal using potatoes instead of barley by boiling them behind a screen so that the inmates would not reject the gruel.
In England and Germany, potatoes were considered more of a curiosity; while in France, they were believed to cause leprosy and fever. However, Antoine Parmentier, a French scientist and army officer during the Seven Years War, wrote a thesis in 1773 extolling the virtues of the potato, particularly as a famine food.
He had eaten the potato as a prisoner of war in Prussia and thought that, if the French court could be persuaded to esteem the potato, all of France would do the same. Amazingly, he not only persuaded the French King, Louis XVI, to accept this tuber, but the queen Marie Antoinette as well, who wore the flowers to decorate her dresses.
The potato then became quite fashionable and part of the French cuisine, and was the beginning for the potato soup now known as Potage Parmentier. By the early 19th century, the potato became a staple in France, with no recordings of any new leprosy or fevers as a result!
Parmentier was also instrumental in creating “French Fries“,
which were served at a dinner honouring Benjamin Franklin who, duly unimpressed, left it to Thomas Jefferson to introduce them to the White House. America has never been the same since.
Additionally, Parmentier established large potato plantations near Paris in order to make them more popular with the people. Evidentally, this worked because the fields were surrounded by ditches and patrolled by guards, causing the common folk to wonder what was so valuable. At night, they came out and began to steal the tubers to plant in their own gardens.
Even the French Revolution did not curb the popularity of the potato; and, in 1793, the Royal Tuileries Gardens were turned into fields of potatoes. However, like his prized potato, Parmentier went underground and lived on for many more years.
When and how the potato was introduced into Ireland is not certain, but many agree that the most plausible story is that it was done by Sir Walter Raleigh. He owned estates in County Cork and was mayor of the town of Youghal in 1588 and 1589, which was about the time that the potato was sure to have been established in that country.
So successful did it become, that it virtually replaced other cereal and dairy staples by the 18th century. By the time of the famine in 1845, over one-third of the population relied almost exclusively on the potato for their sustenance.
In pre-famine Ireland, the average daily consumption of potatoes was between seven and fourteen pounds and that a man, his wife, and four children would easily consume 250 pounds of the vegetable every week.
These extraordinary consumption rates were paralleled by an explosive increase in population between 1780 and 1845, during which time the population almost doubled. This, coupled with Ireland’s climate and plentiful rain, produced large crops of potatoes which were propagated from small tubers.
These were passed from one household to another, causing the entire national crop to be from just a few original plants.
This continual inbreeding made the crops highly susceptible to blight and, ultimately, caused the deaths of more than 1.5 million people with another million emigrating to North America.
This tragedy gave the world one of the clearest reasons for the necessity of maintaining a diversity of crops and genes. Yet, food producers have learned little from this event and still maintain huge crops of one variety of food which, once again, will ultimately claim millions of lives.
Incredibly, the potato had not spread northward from Central America; and it was Irish immigrants who took it to North America in 1719. The first plantation was at Londonderry, New Hampshire.
During the American Civil War, potatoes were sent to the prisons and front lines; and, by eating the potatoes in their skins, the soldiers received enough vitamin C generally to stave off scurvy. The common name of “spud” came as a result of a tool that was once used to weed the potato patch.
The potato now accounts for over half of the world’s annual harvest of starchy roots and tubers.
It is estimated that the average annual worldwide potato harvest could cover a four-lane highway encircling the world six times.
Interestingly, Belgium boasts of having the world’s only potato museum but that has since been disspelled as there are numerous ones around the world including Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany and the United States in Idaho.
Russia and Poland grow most of the world’s supply of potatoes, which is remarkable when one considers that potato crops are grown in 130 of the world’s 167 independent countries.
Holland gives over one-quarter of its arable land to potato production, which has become a more lucritive crop than the tulips. Yet, more than half of the world’s potato crops are fed to animals.
Despite the average individual consumption of 145 pounds of potatoes per person each year, knowing their different names is not half as useful as linking their shape with their culinary usefulness.
- long potatoes are perfect for baking, mashing, frying, and microwaving. There are two types of long potatoes: the Russet, which has a rough brown skin; and the Long White, which has a light tan thin skin. Both have a dry, mealy fluffy texture.
- round potatoes are moist and not as starchy and, because they hold their shape well, are a better choice for salads, for boiling, and for cooking in the microwave. However, they do not bake or mash well. Round potatoes come in red and white varieties. One useful cooking tip to remember is if too much is salt be added to a recipe, a raw potato can be put in with the cooking food and, while it continues to cook, the potato will absorb much of the salt. This also works when cooking oatmeal porridge!
There are more than 500 ways to serve potatoes, including boiling, steaming, baking, roasting, mashing, sautéeing, frying, and cooking au gratin.
They can also be made into flour and added to breads or pancakes, but their main use remains as chips and french fries.
The main differences between the two is their size and method of cooking. In England, french fries are very thinly sliced and deep fried in oil. Chips are sliced thickly and also cooked in fat, but not deep fried.
In America, the names and methods of cooking are reversed. French fries are thickly cut and fried in all manner of oils and fats, while chips are thinly sliced, fried, and commercially packaged.
For the “American” traveller to Britain, care must be taken when ordering “Fish and Chips”, as the American ideal of french fries will not be given. That distinction must be made up front to avoid confrontation later.
Potatoes are a high carbohydrate food with much starch and a little sugar. In storage, the starch turns to sugar so that the longer a potato is stored, the sweeter it becomes.
The proteins in potatoes lack the essential amino acids methionine and cystine. Potatoes have a few trace nutrients, but they are usually destroyed once it is peeled and cooked.
Soaked in vinegar, potato slices were once used as a scurvy remedy.
Potato flakes or granules have very little nutrients compared to the fresh, and potato chips or sticks are significantly higher in salt.
A potato cooked in its skin will contain four times more iron than those peeled, as well as having more vitamin C. However, it is advisable to use only organically grown potatoes as all root vegetables are susceptible to nitrates left in the soil from chemical fertilizers.
Potatoes do not like to be stored where it is too cold, as in the refrigerator. Nor do they like it too warm, as in room temperature. They prefer something in between.
New potatoes though, need cold temperatures to stop their starches from converting to sugars, which makes them more perishable.
Potatoes also prefer dark places; therefore, storage in a cool place in a burlap or paper bag is best. They should not be stored with onions as the latter give off a gas that accelerates potato decay.
However, a single apple tucked in with the potatoes will stop sprouting.
If potatoes are accidentally frozen, they will develop black rings around the inside.
Often thought of as only a food, the potato also has some other interesting uses.
- In the past, the starchy flour was used to powder the wigs once fashionable in European life.
- The juice is particularly excellent for cleaning silks, cotton, wool and even furniture.
- Pounded, raw potatoes, applied cold, are often used as a soothing plaster for burns or scalds
- when heated slightly, they are useful as a drawing poultice applied to an infection or such foreign object as a sliver
Potatoes come in a huge range of shapes, sizes, colours, and textures. The skins may be red, yellow, purple, or white. The flesh may be pale cream or yellow, mottled, or blue. The texture may be waxy or floury; and shapes range from knobbly, to round, or oval.
Because of Government legislation, some old varieties are only available from specialist societies; but most suppliers have a good range for sale. Varieties for growing should be chosen from ones recommended for the area.
Today, about 700 potato varieties are held in Scotland’s governmental reference collection. Each country has a different list of varieties suitable for growing in their particular climate.
The lists would be quite different for France and Germany compared to those from Oregon and Idaho, for instance.
- Potatoes also contain a natural nerve toxin called solanine, which is produced in any of the green parts, including the leaves, stem, and any green spots on the skin. Solanine interferes with the body’s ability to use acetylcholinesterase, a chemical that facilitates the transmission of impulses between body cells. Potatoes exposed to light will produce solanine more quickly than those stored in the dark but all potatoes produce some solanine all the time. Unlike other toxins, solanine does not dissolve in water, nor is it destroyed by heat. Therfore, any present on the potato will still be there after it is cooked. Governmental regulations do not permit the sale of potatoes containing more than 200 ppm (parts per million) of solanine, and the ones commercially sold are rarely over 100 ppm. At that level, a healthy adult would have to eat almost five pounds of potatoes at one sitting before experiencing any gastrointestinal or neurological symptoms. However, there have been reported cases of illness and death from solanine poisoning. The best way to avoid this is to throw out any green potatoes or those sprouting “eyes” as these also have high levels of solanine. Moldy potatoes are also guilty and have potentially hazardous toxins.
- Commercial potato salad has been treated with a sulfite, as sulfur dioxide, to inactivate polyphenoloxidase that darkens potatoes when cut and exposed to light. People who are sensitive to sulfites can suffer allergic reactions, including anaphalactic shock.
- Another thing of which to be aware is that the tomato-like fruits and the leaves of the potato plants are poisonous so they should never be eaten.
mean little tubers that are elongated and sell for a high price. They often have such brightly coloured skins as indigo and fuschia ,which seldom stay that way when cooked. Some fingerling variety names include: Austrian Crescent, French Fingerling, La Ratte (Larote, La Reine, La Princesse), Ozette (Anna Cheeka’s Ozette), Peanut (Swedish peanut, Mandel, Butterfinger), Purple Peruvian, Red Thumb, Rose Finn Apple (Rose Fir), Ruby Crescent, Russian Banana (Banana).
are the most novel of the specialty types and vary considerably. Marketers tend to lump the purple and the blue together, but each potato has its own characteristics. Some can be mealy, while others are moist. Some fade in colour during cooking, while others intensify their colour. A baby blue can transform into a cement gray when boiled, or a lavender potato may deepen to violet. Some named varieties include: All-Blue, Blue Pride, Caribe, Purple Chief (Kerry Blue), Purple Peruvian (Peruvian Blue), Purple Viking, and Seneca Horn (Cow Horn).
are also highly variable although they are generally moister. Some advocate adding vinegar to the water to hold the colour. This rarely works, but instead increases the cooking time, produces an uneven texture, reddens blue hues, and merely concentrates the pink on cut surfaces. Some named varieties include: All-Red (Cranberry Red), Desiree, Early Ohio, Early Rose, Fontenot, Huckleberry, Red Cloud, Reddale (Red Dale), Red Gold, Rose, Gold, Rote Erstling.
Golden to tan potatoes
with yellow flesh usually offer a superior flavour whether they are starchy or waxy in texture. Their firm consistency and pronounced sweet flavour make them a favourite. Some named varieties include: Bintje, Butte, Carola (Carole), Concord, Charlotte, German Butterball, Island Sunshine, Onaway, Yellow Finn (Yellow Finnish), Yukon Gold.
New potatoes is an abused phrase. Marketers and restauranteurs offer anything that is small and red as a new potato. A new potato has a very thin, tender, and flavourful skin that is left on during cooking and eating. It is one that has just been harvested from a still-green plant as opposed to mature potatoes harvested after the plant dies off and cured for about two weeks.
Some popular varieties of the potato include the following:
Adretta, Likaria, Liu, and Arkula are varieties characterized by a really good flavour.
Aula is a mid-to-late fall variety with bright yellow floury flesh that tastes mild to strong.
Avalanche is a maincrop, round to oval, having white tubers and flesh. It is excellent for baking.
Belle de Fontenay is a very old and rare French early variety, excellent for salads. The yellow tubers are small and kidney-shaped with a waxy texture, but a good flavour.
Capiro is characterized by its particularly juicy, waxy flesh and dark reddish skin.
Cara is a large maincrop and a good all-round potato.
Carlingford is available as a new and maincrop, having firm white flesh which tends to be mealy on the outside.
Christa is the first early yellow-fleshed variety. Predominantly waxy, it is distinguished by an especially hearty taste and an attractive tuber shape.
Chugaua is a relatively small, dark red potato from Colombia and named after its place of origin.
Concorde is a very early, heavy-yielding variety having oval tubers that are large with a pale yellow flesh and waxy texture and excellent flavour.
Criolla is cultivated at an altitude of 6,500 feet and is always roasted or boiled in its skin.
Desirée is a popular, midseason maincrop with pink skin and pale yellow flesh. It is predominantly a waxy Dutch variety with rounded oval tubers. It is good for fries, mashing, baking, or roasting.
Famosa is a maincrop that produces long oval tubers with white skin and pale yellow flesh.
Golden Wonder is a late maincrop producing tubers with a floury, yellow flesh that is good for baking and ideal for frying but usually disintegrates when boiled. Does have an excellent flavour and texture.
Grenailles is a French name given to the smallest grade of potato, which is little more than an inch.
Ica Huila is a new strain, especially suited for fries and chips.
Jersey Royal is often the first new potato of the season, and has a firm yellow flesh and a distinctive flavour. It is best boiled or steamed.
Kennebec is a second early to maincrop variety that is smooth with white skin and flesh. It is a heavy producer, easy to peel, good for boiling; and it keeps well.
King Edward is a maincrop ideal for baking.
La Ratte is a midseason waxy variety from France that is pointed and tastes like a chestnut, making it excellent for salads.
Linda is a mid-season German variety that is waxy, but ideal for boiling unpeeled and roasting.
Maja is a midseason variety with rounded oval tubers and yellow flesh. Predominantly waxy, it comes slightly rough and cracked in a dry atmosphere.
Maris Bard is a very early, white-skinned variety with waxy, firm flesh and a good variety for boiling and steaming, and especially good for salads.
Maris Peer is a second early, waxy variety that yields moderate amounts of small white tubers having a good flavour and best boiled or steamed.
Maris Piper is a prolific second early variety with waxy, white flesh when cooked, but a good all round variety with a good flavour that can be cooked in a variety of ways.
Maxine is a maincrop producing round, smooth, red-skinned tubers. The white, waxy flesh remains firm when cooked; and its large tubers are ideal for french fries.
Navan is a white-skinned, oval maincrop.
Nicola is a midseason waxy variety popular for salads.
Paramuna is a Colombian variety named after its place of origin rather than variety.
Pastusa has dark yellow flesh and named after Pasto, its region of origin.
Pentland Dell is a mealy oval-shaped variety that tends to fall apart when boiled. It lacks flavour, but is good roasted or baked.
Pentland Javelin produces high yields of oval white-skinned tubers with white, waxy flesh.
Pink Fir Apple is an old late maincrop variety producing elongated tubers with pink skins and pale yellow flesh. It has many characteristics of new potatoes and is good for chips and salads, remaining firm when cold.
Purace is a new Colombian variety which, as its name suggests, is especially suited for mashing (purées).
Purple potatoes include such exotic types as Peruvian Purple and Purple Viking, and fingerlings called Banana, Apple, and Rose Finn. Purple potatoes are almost black on the outside and a deep blue-purple on the inside. Like Yukon Golds they are all-purpose. Fingerlings have a sweet crunchy flavour and a crisp texture. They are best cooked whole, but not mashed.
Red Gold is a new Canadian variety that is round with reddish gold, moist, waxy flesh.
Red Norland is an extra early variety producing smooth red skinned and white fleshed tubers.
Romano has red skin and creamy flesh. Similar to Désirée, it is also a good all-round potato.
Sabanera is one of the most popular Colombian varieties suitable for roasting, baking, or steaming.
Sieglinde is a popular, waxy variety that keeps its shape and colour when cooked.
Stroma is a maincrop producing oval tubers having pink to red skins and pale yellow flesh.
Tocarena is an all-round floury potato, also named after its place of origin.
Truffle potato (truffle de Chine) is a superior rare, dark purple potato from France, that have a fine nutty flavour.
Tuquerrea is a floury variety from Southern Colombia and frequently mashed or roasted.
Wilja is a high-yielding second early variety producing long white tubers with pale yellow waxy flesh. It has a slightly sweet flavour, but a good all-round variety.
Yukon Gold is a Canadian all-purpose variety that has yellowish flesh and skin with a medium, dry, firm texture.
Chuño and Tunta
are two dried potato products developed in the footills of the Andes over 2,000 years ago.
It is believed that the process was discovered accidentally, for it was only in certain climatic conditions where this could be accomplished.
Every autumn, it was necessary to have long periods of sub-zero temperatures at night, followed by bright sunshine and drying winds during the day.
The freshly dug potatoes would be washed without damaging the skin and laid out on straw for the necessary exposure to the frost. As soon as they thawed in the sunshine, they were trampled by bare-footed Indians who were able to leave the skins intact, but allowing the cells to rupture, causing the fluid to run.
On the first pressing, over 30% of the fluid would be lost. These were then left to dry in the sun and the winds. This process was repeated for five consecutive days.
From the sixth day onward, no further pressing took place. They were covered with enough straw that the depth would keep them from freezing at night.
When the potatoes were as hard as rock, they were stored indefinitely where even minor exposures to dampness did not cause any harm. This product was called Chuño.
When the people were ready to consume these dried potatoes, they only needed to add water and cook. It was calculated that for a month’s rations of jerkey (dried llama meat) and Chuño, the total weight would be twenty pounds.
The preparation of tunta began in a similar fashion, but included a soaking in a pond for about two months, followed by a period of sun-drying.
Tunta, which is also called “white chuño”, is pure white inside and readily disintegrates into a fine, white flour.
Potatoes of this type were frost-proof, capable of indefinite storage, highly portable, and needed only water for reconstitution.
Tunta was used like wheat flour in Europe and North America.