Appreciating the beauty of our humble spud


Consider the humble spud.

A staple of our diet, traditionally, vying with bread, the main carbohydrate component of what we consume in the UK.

Yet do we appreciate it properly? The supermarket freezers are full of frozen chips and variants thereof: hash browns, rösti, potato waffles, crinkle cut, skinny fries (all of which are very poor relations of homemade, however convenient). These are generally consumed with melted cheese and the Devil’s diarrhoea, the baked bean in tomato sauce (N.B. all ingredient and dish names in this paragraph can be considered as being preceded by the word ‘allegedly’).

Now, your correspondent believes this usage does the potato disrespect. A potato is a fantastic comestible, bursting with flavour and potential, reasonably easy to grow and storable in the short to medium term. It has a fascinating history, too – one of the vegetables used since time immemorial (about eight to ten millennia) in south and central America, along with the tomato, chilli, and aubergine, which were, after a number of misattributions of origins, introduced into Europe and then the east by the explorers, adventurers and piratical conquistadors of the 16th century. The Incas of what is now southern Peru and northern Bolivia grew hundreds of varietals of potato, and made them fit for long-term storage by part-crushing and then repeatedly freeze drying at altitude to produce ‘chuño’, which could be held safely for years in naturally cold caves.

Initially in Europe, it was completely disregarded as a foodstuff – as a member of the solanaceae, the plant family that includes deadly nightshade, it was regarded as poisonous – and indeed, eating the leaves or occasional green tubers would indeed cause digestive upset. It was also banned by the church as being liable to provoke lust, although I don’t quite see that one; in Catholic France it was also forbidden as being a Protestant vegetable, a classification that would defeat Linnaeus.

Eventually, a number of wise individuals realised what a useful staple the potato tuber could be, especially under conditions of a growing population and the mini-ice age of the 16th and 17th centuries, which made cereal crops much less viable in northern climes.

Best known among these is the French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who having been forced to subsist on potatoes while a captive of the German army, realised they were not toxic or fit only for animal feed. The Germans were early adopters, having been forced by statute under Frederick II of Prussia to add potatoes to their crop rotation practices – there were initial riots due to the belief that potatoes caused leprosy, but adoption of cultivars that produced mere traces of the solanum toxin ended the skin rashes and thus this erroneous belief. Parmentier developed recipes to introduce the spud into the French diet and marketed them with a range of publicity stunts any modern PR agency would be proud of. He gave bouquets of potato flowers to royalty; held multiple-course, potato-only dinners and invited the cream of society and honoured guests; and my favourite, planted large areas and had them heavily guarded during the day to indicate a valuable crop – the guards were withdrawn at night so the public could steal them.

Eventually, people became more accepting of this novel vegetable, if partly through necessity, and it became the staple it is today.

So, which potato should you use for which dish? This is of considerable import, as among the hundreds of possibles, there are a smaller number of regularly available mainstream crops, and these have characteristics that lend themselves to particular methods of cooking.

The so-called floury potatoes, such as King Edward, Desiree, Maris Piper and Cara, are best for roasting and baking – parboil for five minutes, draw and leave to steam, perhaps with a shake of the pan to increase the rough surface before placing into hot fat. Most of these will mash well, as will Golden Wonder and Wilja – some would say use a traditional masher, some a ricer, some a rotary mill – I would suggest you find your favourite and stick to it, as the real secret is not to overwork your mash – it can become gluey if the cell disruption releases too much starch.

The waxy potatoes are for salads, as they have a firmer texture and will hold their shape – varieties like La Ratte, Charlotte, Belle de Fontenay, and the marvellous Jersey Royal – if you are going to dress with vinaigrette, add generously to the potatoes while still warm to get the best combined flavour. Finally, for boiling or steaming to serve hot, all the salad varieties plus any potatoes from Cyprus, Egypt and the low countries.

There are, of course, many other varieties if you are a gardener or have access to a proper greengrocer. Some have brief seasons, but that is part of the joy of real food; it has its peak time for flavour and then is gone. A tired six-month-old Jersey Royal is as dull as Peruvian asparagus in October. It is also true, since almost all culinary rules are made to be broken, that the ‘wrong’ type of spud can be used. The famous pommes purées made by Joël Robuchon is a concoction of waxy Ratte potatoes with their own weight in olive oil, cream and butter – nice as a treat but a touch rich for every day. I often roast salad potatoes in olive oil, adding whole garlic cloves part way through and a sprig of rosemary towards the end of cooking. And the finest potato I have ever tasted was a plateful of sliced and shallow fried Cypriot Nicola potatoes (technically a salad variety) that had been dug and washed immediately prior to serving. They had a heavenly flavour and a pronounced mineral character like a fine Chablis. Having read that last sentence back, it does sound awfully pretentious, but I’m leaving it in because it’s true.

We would also do well to remember that potatoes are not just a side. Well prepared, they can be a dish in their own right Рa gratin based on potatoes is satisfying and nourishing, and can be varied in so many ways. The baked jacket allows an infinite variety of toppings, from leftover stew through ratatouille and caponata to just butter and cheese (just not baked beans, please; I mean how can a rational human take something as joyful as a tomato and as wonderful as a haricot and make that sugary slurry, I arst yer?) Another fine way to have potato as a centrepiece is r̦sti Рgrate potato and onion, squeeze out the liquid, pack into a frying pan greased with oil and butter or some other fat, then sizzle very gently until a golden crust has formed. Tip onto a plate, invert and repeat for the other side. Do it slowly and patiently, and you will be rewarded with the ultimate potato pancake Рtop with wilted spinach and some Gruyere or saut̩ed mushrooms, finished with a touch of Marsala and cream. Or bacon and sausages.

Another gift of the potato is its versatility as a leftover – yesterday’s mash becomes creamy cheese or bacon croquettes, or is added to flour and baked into farls. Previously baked potatoes can be microwaved, but are much nicer sliced thickly and sizzled in goose fat until starting to crisp then drizzled with some raclette cheese and aided by a handful of cornichons. A personal favourite with any potato is to chop it up, mix with leftover greens or some defrosted peas, flavour generously with ginger and chilli and a pinch or cumin seeds or some turmeric or fenugreek, then wrap into triangles with a strip of filo dough to make cheeky samosas – fry until crisp or brush with oil and bake. The assorted versions of hash are another winner – any leftover meat and potato sautéed with onions, green leaves, capsicums, leeks and well, anything really; topped with a fried egg or some sliced avocado. Or my old nan’s ‘tatty ‘ash’, in which potato and lamb’s kidneys stretch leftover roast lamb into a third day, bolstered with carrots and celery and stock to make a delightful casserole (traditionally topped with a shortcrust pastry lid, much to mum’s disapproval).

And finally, the other thing you can do with potatoes is to mash them, ferment them and distil them – the perfect satori for any carbohydrate. The best vodka is made from spuds rather than rye or wheat, and even better still is poteen, the until recently illegal spirit that was home distilled in Ireland and is a thing of beauty when done right – of the commercially available brands, the best is Glendalough – preferably the Mountain Strength at 60 per cent ABV. Sip very slowly and respectfully.

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