Of the potato – the true gold of the Andes
I love them fried, I love them boiled, I love them very much when they are mashed. I like them new when they’re the size of quail eggs, I love them just as much when they’re covered with thick peel and are the size of a large fist. I like them red and yellow, blue and white. I never eat them green, because EVERYONE knows a potato that shifts into green might be poisonous.
Potatoes are one of the most widely disseminated food crops today. People add them to curries in India, they savour them with fermented herring in Sweden, they eat them with stew all over the place, and where would the world be without the famous Spanish Tortilla – an omelette with… taa-daa… potatoes?
People seem to think potatoes have been around for ever, but no sir, that isn’t the case. The potato entered the global cuisine in the wake of the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire. In my view, a far more valuable asset than all those tons of gold and silver Spain filched from the Incas.
The potato is a native of the altiplano, that very cold, very arid highland that lies at the heart of the former Incan empire. The altitude is staggering. The air is so thin you can suck yourself blue in the face and still feel depleted of oxygen. Luckily, the soroche only lasts for a couple of days, after which your lungs forgive you for taking them there and begin to work relatively normally again. Very little grows here except coca – and the potato. How fortunate, then, that the potato comes in hundreds of varieties.
As a child, I would accompany my mother to the supermarket in Bogotá, where we lived. I remember her discussing at length – very boring length – with our driver as to what potatoes to buy for what. Not the most riveting of subjects when you’re like eleven and can’t wait to get to the candy aisle, but I do remember the endless (well) line of bins, all of them with a different kind of potato. Round, elongated, deep purple, bright orange… No wonder it took my mother ages to buy her spuds; faced with all that variety, how can one ever be certain one is making the right choice?
Anyway: back to the beginning of the potato’s world colonization. The Spanish weren’t all that impressed with the potato. Maybe because the Incas mainly ate it as some sort of gruel, maybe because the varieties back then were somewhat harsher on the palate. But they quickly realised that the tuber travelled well and that it could be used as food if the need arose, and so the potato went back to Europe in the hold of a Spanish ship, no doubt jostling for space with all that purloined gold.
The potato didn’t do all that well in Spanish heat – it probably missed its cold highlands. Crops were anything but impressive, and further to this the tuber was viewed with suspicion. Nowhere in the Bible was the potato mentioned as a foodstuff, so were good Christians supposed to eat it? Besides, the plant was poisonous, right? I mean, it belonged to the same family as belladona, and everyone knew that plant could definitely kill you should you ingest it. But the potato had a nice little flower, so why not cultivate it as a decorative potted plant instead?
For its first few hundred years in Europe, that was precisely what the potato became. A potted plant. Yes, the Spanish cultivated it as emergency food on their ships, and soon other nations did so as well, but the people not obliged to eat it, stayed well clear of it. Not only was the potato related to belladona, it was also related to mandrake, that magical plant which sprout roots that at time resemble human bodies. And as no one in their right mind would ever dream of consuming mandrake, well then…
In 1662, the Royal Society in England recommended the government to encourage people to start growing potatoes. At that point in time, it was only grown by botanists and the odd enthusiastic herbalist, as the English farmers viewed it with distrust – as did the Dutch, the German, the French, the Danish, the Swedish – well, more or less all European farmers. If it was grown, it was grown to feed the beasts. The few intrepid souls who dared to taste it were not impressed – and actually I think we wouldn’t be all that thrilled had we been served a potato in the 17th century. The level of solanine was high enough to cause a rash, and the taste was a tad bitter. (Solanine is a poison, but levels in the varieties grown today are so low we don’t need to worry overmuch about dying of potato poisoning – not at all, actually)
By the early 18th century, the potato had achieved a toehold in the European cuisine – as food for rough sorts such as sailors and soldiers. The rest of the population stuck to cabbage, porridge and meat, and would continue to do so for some time more. However, people were trying to come up with uses for the tuber, and so the potato was ground into flour (excellent for making almond cakes, equally good as an alternative to arsenic based powder, a must in every fashionista’s life – the powder, I mean, not the arsenic) it was fed to the animals, and, most importantly, people discovered how to make alcohol from potatoes, which saw the birth of the snaps (potato based vodka). All of this before anyone had even tried mashing them with milk and butter… (and nutmeg, I think. Mashed potatoes are at their best with a pinch of nutmeg)
So, well before anyone was eating potatoes, people were drinking it – and dusting their faces or wigs with it. But all of that would change somewhere halfway through the 18th century, when starvation and a growing population would more or less force farmers to grow potatoes – in the process discovering just how tasty this tuber could be. Mind you, not everyone embraced the potato. When Frederick the Great of Prussia tried to force his farmers to plant potatoes in 1744, most of the tubers were pulled up, this due to a common fear that the potato could spread leprosy. Frederick was forced to post troops to protect his potato crops. When the Swedish king in 1754 commanded his people to start growing potatoes for food, his subjects chose to ignore him, muttering under their breath that the king was obviously off his rocker. And in Great Britain, the potato was at best a garden crop until the 1780’s.
The only exception to all this skepticism vis-a-vis the potato was Ireland. The Irish fell in love with the potato already in the 17th century, and well before anyone else had gotten to the point of consuming them on a daily basis, the Irish had embraced the potato as a staple. This probably goes hand in hand with the rampant poverty of the Irish peasant class. They couldn’t afford fields of sufficient size to grow wheat or barley, but the potato thrived in small patches, and an acre sufficed to feed a family of six. By the 1840’s, more than 40% of the Irish population depended on the potato – which was when Ireland was struck by several consecutive years of potato blight, and in the following famine two million ( two million!) people died, while another million emigrated.
Leaving aside the terrible plight of the Irish during the potato famine, the economical importance of the potato was huge. Rich in nutrients, easy to grow, the inclusion of the potato as a staple food is the reason why the European population grew as much as it did in the 18th century, thereby producing the labour needed to drive the Industrial Revolution forward. A cheap source of food, the potato was also easy to transport, making it possible to feed the hungry workers that converged on the rapidly growing towns and cities.
By this time, the potato had become quite the globetrotter. Wherever Europeans went, they carried the potato with them, and with time potatoes were growing on all continents (well, minus Antarctica). But it is still to the Andean altiplano that one must go to see the potato in all its glory. It is only in the markets of its homeland that the potato can be found in all its multiple varieties, from spuds the size of pinkie fingers to huge gnarled things with skins that shift in deepest purple. This is where it came from, this humble and versatile little tuber that most of us can’t quite consider doing without.
It’s like Samwise Gamgee says: “Potatoes, boil ’em, mash ’em stick ’em in a stew” And if nothing else, why not grate one and apply as a cheap and rather effective facial mask? Hmm. Right now I’m thinking chips – freshly cut and fried, dusted with salt and greasy enough to have to lick your fingers afterwards. The gods can keep their nectar – but woe to them if they try to steal my spuds!