16. Potato

Consider the potato.

Consider a plant with 5,000 varieties, of which most of us know perhaps five.

Consider a member of the highly poisonous nightshade family, that is itself full of deadly solanine – except for in its swollen, starchy tubers, which are entirely harmless (and rather tasty).

Consider a tuber that sits in the ground long after all other crops would have rotted, and which you harvest merely by turning the soil, like an agricultural game of lucky dip.

Consider, finally, a plant that grew for millennia on the high Andean plateau, one of the most esoteric landscapes in the world – cold, thin-aired, with weather systems that would baffle a sea captain – that in five hundred short years has become one of the world’s most important food crops.

This is the most remarkable thing about potatoes, I think: the way they have assimilated themselves into most world cultures, but particularly those of western Europe. They are the prototypical ‘good immigrant’: more English than the English (roast potato), more French than the French (gratin dauphinois), more German than the Germans (kartoffelsalat), maligned by pearl-clutching campaigners for all the sins – obesity, diabetes – they have brought to our shores, when in fact we’d be stuffed without them.

Your roast dinner never used to contain roast potatoes; your fish and chips never used to contain chips. If you were committed to using native British ingredients, you could no longer make shepherd’s pie, fish pie, Cornish pasties, Lancashire hotpot, or pretty much any other food we think of as quintessentially British. That, to me, is astonishing.

Potato season – from early summer to late autumn – is one of my favourite times to visit my family home. On any dry day, we go to the allotment, grab our pitchforks, and start rooting around. It really is a lucky dip, and it’s terrific fun, especially with kids.

You don’t need a lot of space to grow potatoes, by the way. I recently purchased a potato bag from Poundland, into which I will soon plant seed potatoes. You slowly fill it with compost as the stems grow upwards, filling the whole bag. The result is a bumper crop of new potatoes come summer.

One final note on the word ‘spuds’. Sadly, it’s nothing to do with the Society for the Prevention of Unwholesome Diet, an early anti-potato league, which never existed. ‘Spud’ comes from a Spanish word for the tool you use to dig a potato hole; it’s probably related to the Latin ‘spad’ – sword – from which we also get ‘spade’. It’s a conquistador’s word which has somehow ended up sounding extremely English: a fitting testament to the vegetable that bears its name.

3 comments

  1. The potato has an entrancing if rather opposing history that backpedals numerous hundreds of years. Presently thought to be the world’s fourth most essential harvest (after wheat, rice, and maize), the potato (Solanum tuberosum) initially Grown wild all through the South American Andes.

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