A special year for the humble potato

“It must be very nutritious, or it would not sustain the strength of thousands of people whose almost sole food it constitutes”. Eliza Acton (Modern Cookery for Private Families 1845).

“It must be very nutritious, or it would not sustain the strength of thousands of people whose almost sole food it constitutes”. Eliza Acton (Modern Cookery for Private Families 1845).

It may seem a bit odd for the United Nations to have sponsored 2008 as the International Year of the Potato but, in fact, it fits in perfectly with that organisation's humanitarian role in battling hunger in the developing world and recognises the potato's place in the diet.

The tuber which started life 8000 years ago in the Andes Mountains of South America was not only eaten but also worshipped by the Incas, spreading throughout the world after the Spanish conquistadors destroyed the Incan civilisation in the 14th century, but saved the potato to grow firstly on the Canary Islands and then in mainland Spain, from where it was carried as a gift to the likes of the pope from the Spanish court. Potatoes were first grown in Britain at the end of the 14th century and soon spread to France and the Netherlands. Initially it was a botanic specimen, admired for its flowers, the tubers being thought only fit for feeding pigs, but it was gradually recognised as a good thing for people, too, and was taken on voyage by sailors who spread it to India, China and Japan in the 17th century…not to mention Ireland where conditions were ideal for its cultivation, and from where immigrants took it to North America.

Only a small portion of the gene pool had left the Andes and it was more than a century before more varieties, suited to long summer days, appeared just in time to come to the rescue in the late 18th century European famines and the potato's value as a food security crop was recognised. Soon, the potato was a staple of the diet across Northern Europe, although it was still vulnerable to blight and after three harvests were lost in the mid-19th century, with devastating results, especially in Ireland, the search was on for hardier, disease resistant varieties.

Meantime, the potato had followed the old trade routes in Asia and was spread even further by immigration and colonisation. Nowadays, China, the Russian federation and India are the main producers, with European production in decline, and it has a great future in the developing world such as in Africa where, in Lesotho, there is an FAO project to replace maize with virus-free potato tubers. Back in the Andes, where it all started, a national register of Peruvian native varieties was set up in July this year, to help conserve the country's potato heritage.

Indeed, throughout the year events have been held all over the world, and you can find more about them on http://www.potato2008.org/en the official site of The International Year of the Potato, along with heaps of other information.

Locally the 7th World Potato Congress will be held in Christchurch in March 2009 with 500 delegates expected.

Closer to my heart, however, is the release of a celebratory book “Potato favourites” for “Food in a Minute”. It's full of great recipes and heaps of information about our “spuds”, including quirky facts and figures. I'm delighted to have been able to play a small role in the UN's venture – and I hope you'll enjoy being part of it, too, when you cook up a pot of potatoes, or use the book for lots of meal ideas.

Meantime, try some of these recipe ideas and salute the humble potato as the important food source it is for us all.

The first one, Caramel Onion And Potato Tarts, I've chosen because I have just been visiting family in Tasmania! But you can easily make it here with new potatoes from Oamaru. Cumin Spiced Mashed Potatoes go really well with grilled meat, while Mashed Potatoes with Crême Fraiche and Chives is another delicious variation on a theme. Summer's coming and with it delicious new potatoes; try New Potatoes with Mint Pesto or New Potatoes with Sundried Tomato Paste.

Comments (0)

Please login to submit a comment.