THE STORY OF THE POTATO
We will start with a story that might have occurred in the west of Ireland many years ago!
Have you ever wondered what would have happened here if we had not got the potato?’
‘We’ve had it a long time. I heard tell it was the Basques who brought it here to this shore when they landed to dry their cod in the summer months.’
‘When was that then?’
‘You don’t know?’
‘Of course I don’t know, I wasn’t around in them days.’
‘Ah, is that the sixteenth century you are talking about?’
‘I heard tell the potato was brought here by workers from Lancashire in England in sixteenth ten or other.’
‘Raleigh, he brought the potato to Youghal, did he not, in fifteen something or other.’
‘The Basque and the Spaniard knew the potato long before Raleigh, even a man as ignorant as myself knows that.’
‘When your great ancestor arrived here the potato was well established?’
‘Oh, I don’t know, the people here have always been fishers. They would not have relied on it.’
‘Did they not?’
‘As far back as I can remember our staples were mackerel, fresh and salted, potatoes, milk, eggs, kale, cabbage, scallions, carrots, beet. We fed most of the vegetables to the animals. We would have kept the onions but they were not easy to grow. Someone would kill a sheep so there was always a bit of mutton to be had. There were always hens running around, and plenty of eggs. We got a pig between us once a year at Samhain and made salted bacon from what was left after we had a big feast. I never saw garlic until I went to the city.’
‘Mackerel and potatoes?’
‘I don’t know, we ate well. There was always food on the table, even salmon and trout despite the bailiffs.’
‘Did your mother bake soda bread?’
‘And her grandmother … a hard wheaten bread.’
‘I remember my mother talking about that once when I was very young. She said this place was a paradise because there was always fish and loaves and potatoes and milk and eggs in abundance.’
‘Is that why your ancestor moved here?’
‘He was a Basque named Ortz, he was a buyer who came to the town to snap up the cod. He must have taken a shine to Mary O’Sullivan from the hill above the town, she worked in one of the kitchens, where no doubt he took his meals and lodged when he was waiting for the catch. She was my great grandmother, so my family does go back a long way, but not here. I don’t know how it came about but they moved from the town out here. He was a fisherman, that’s all he knew, and he did what we are doing today. That’s all he did. I knew him when I was very young and he was very old, not that his age stopped him from going out in this. He was a master fisherman and he could handle a boat. Three of us went out, Arty I called him, my grandfather, his son Anthony, I’m named after him and sometimes we were a four when Art came out but he wasn’t a man of the sea, he was afraid of the sea, unlike the old men, Arty and Anthony, they were tough, boy they were tough.’
‘I never remember your father going fishing, he was more fond of his prize kerrys wasn’t he.’
‘Well maybe my memory is playing tricks, but I remember those days. I’ll tell you why I remember. There we were, myself the youngest, my father, his father, my grandfather and my great grandfather, on a day like this, flat, like the calm before the storm and my father, being nervous, said something that I never thought about until many years later. “Boys, the women will not like this one bit,” he said. “If we go down we’ll all be taken.” Later I heard there was a superstition about all the males in a family going out together. Come to think about it I don’t remember the four of us going out again after that, you know what time is to you when you’re young.’
‘I don’t believe I was ever in that boat with your great grandfather, I was with your grandfather and Seanie, you remember him?’
‘I couldn’t forget him could I, he pulled me out more times than I can remember, I was always falling in.’
There are probably more stories in the world about the venerable potato than any other item of food. Cast as a villain in countless dramas, from Ireland to Russia, the potato has played a divisive part in traditional food cultures, changing ways of life in many countries.
Known to the inhabitants in the highlands of Peru over 10,000 years ago, the potato (papa in the local dialect) was gradually domesticated and cultivated throughout the Americas.
The potato appeared in Spain in 1539 without fanfare. Forty years later it was cultivated in Andalusia and Galicia and sold as a root vegetable in Seville and Madrid. Later in the 1500s Walter Raleigh was growing potatoes on his estate in the south-east of Ireland. It was also known to the native Irish in the west of Ireland where it is believed it was traded for fish with the Basques. Whether the Spanish took potatoes to all their terrorities in Europe, to Italy and to the Netherlands, has always been disputed. What is known is that canton Glarus native Johann Jakob Strub, a lieutenant in the English army, returned home to Switzerland with a bag of seed potatoes from Ireland. They were cultivated in Glarus in 1697. They spread to the neighbouring cantons and by the middle of the 19th century prötlete herdöpfel (fried potatoes) replaced barley porridge as the preferred breakfast among farming families around the growing city of Zurich.
The recipe travelled south-west into the Bernese countryside and over the mountains into the Roman canton of the Valais, where it was called pommes de terre roties. It became the morning meal among the French-speaking farmers, was shortened to roties – rösti in Swiss-German. By the mid-1900s variations of the original recipe began to appear. The Roman west preferred boiled potatoes, the Germanic east used raw. In eastern Switzerland the potato was used to make a breakfast dish called maluns, which can be described as toasted potato lumps.
This type of activity occurred all over the European continent, the potato replacing an indigenous ingredient in many breakfast, lunch and dinner preparations.
Meuse river fishers in Namur were among the first people to realise the potato was a subsistence crop and when the river was frozen in winter they began to adapt their fish-frying method to potatoes peeled and cut into strips. This was the beginning of the potato fry tradition, which spread into the Netherlands and northern France, and is now characterised by frituur (fry shops) across the regions. The perfect frite in Belgium is a floury potato like bintje, cut 1 cm per side.
The potato would become a field crop despite resistance from the peasantry in Germany and Russia, where potato production would eventually become the highest in the world. The potato replaced grain, especially during the 1700s when bad harvests pushed up the price of barley, oats, rye and wheat. It became the staple in western Ireland, northern Scotland, England, Flanders, the Rhineland and in eastern and western Switzerland.
We can see today the impact of the potato on traditional food. A protein package full of carbohydrates, vitamins B6 and C, potassium, niacin and iron, it symbolised working life by providing energy and well-being in every imaginable kind of form. The potato was baked, boiled, cooked, fried, mashed, powdered, stuffed and sautéed. Eventually it became the base ingredient to make alcohol – potín (poteen) in Ireland, vodka in Russia – and that made it irresistible. This rustic tradition is dying out in Ireland, while in Russia (and in France) it survives.
The potato produced national dishes in many countries.
It did not fully penetrate countries where rice was the dominant carbohydrate, the Italians and Turks and even the Spanish preferred their short grain rice. The people of the Indian Sub-Continent are an exception, they took the potato to their hearts but remained in love with their rice. In Italy the potato made its name with the little dumplings called gnocchi that were prepared with puréed potatoes mixed with flour and blanched in hot water, and served with grated cheese. In Turkey the potato became associated with hamsi, the little anchovy-like fish of the Black Sea, and also with the cheese pastry tradition of eastern Europe. In Spain the potato found fame with the potato omelette, in Catalonia with truita de patata i ceba.
The tradition of boiling potatoes whole in their skins and serving them with butter or buttermilk is gradually dying out. A mash made from whole cooked potatoes and buttermilk was called the stiffner in the west of Ireland, but it is now a rare sight on a plate. Baked potato mashed with butter and milk is hardly seen anymore.
Roast potatoes have managed to survive, largely as an accompaniment to roast meat dinners in Britain. In eastern Europe and Russia potatoes were boiled and roasted in animal fats – goose, duck, etc – a tradition that is still holding out, despite health concerns.
Mashed potatoes remain popular. You can still go into a shop in south London and order a plate of jellied eel or pie, mash and parsley sauce. Mashed potatoes and carrots, spiced with nutmeg, is called stoemp in the Netherlands and Belgium – a clever interpretation of an early food tradition brought into the region by the Spanish. In Ireland kale and potatoes are mashed together to make colcannon. The mashed potato and crushed chickpea balls called topik made in Armenia are having a makeover.
Potatoes became an essential ingredient in ‘field’ and ‘fish’ cauldron soups and stews. The chaudière tradition re-crossed the Atlantic to Newfoundland where it became chaudrée, anglicised as chowder, in many recipes without potatoes. Chowder is now an Irish national dish – made with potatoes.
Irish stew, initially with mutton, potatoes and onions, now with lamb, potatoes, onions and seasonings, has also survived the test of time. In the Alpine regions of Austria and Italy gröstl, a potato and leftover meat stew, has done the same. Less so in Scotland with stovies, a stew made with potatoes and onions and leftover meat.
Sodd is a spicy meat and potato soup in Norway. Kartoffel suppe is always on the menu in Germany and neighbouring countries in various combinations with potato as the base. In Scotland the soup known as Cullen skink is smoked haddock, potato and onion soup.
Meat and potato pies are still popular in the north of England because the recipe has been commercialised for sale in ‘fish and chip’ shops and at sporting events. In Slovenia they make a wonderful potato pasty called idrijski žlikrofi. And back in England the Cornish pasty, made with beef, onion, potato and swede, is managing to hold its own against fast-food competition. Potato is a main ingredient in the Swiss mountain dish called cholera, which also contains apples or pears, cheese and onions. The potato pie is now an institution across Europe.
Potato dumplings remain popular in northern and central Europe. In Austria dumplings made with apricot and potato are called marillenknödel.
Northern and central European countries got into the habit of making potato pancakes but it was the Spanish who made the tortilla – the potato omelette – an essential element of the frying pan or griddle. The Catalonians claim it was their idea. The Irish, with their boxty, can lay claim to the original idea.
Slowly dying out is the tradition of making potato cakes on a griddle. Once common across northern Europe, it is only in southern Europe, in Andorra, the Basque Country and Catalonia that it is still popular, albeit as the bacon, cabbage and potato cakes known as trinxat.
Baked in the oven, sliced potatoes became the base for gratin dishes that feature cheese and aromatic ingredients like anchovy and bacon. Among these is the potato-cheese gratin known as tartiflette in France.
Köttbullar, Swedish meatballs, are made with potato and meat, from beef, pork or veal.
Then there is kartoffelsalat, served hot and cold in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. A good potato salad is still a mystery to be solved, because those who know the secret are reluctant to share it. Among these is the äädäppelschlot of Cologne, a wondrous creation.
Potato is an ingredient in numerous dough preparations, from breads to pastries. Among these is the tradition associated with Hungary called lángos and known throughout central-eastern Europe. The Hungarians produce burgonyás lángos, a fried potato flatbread sold as a street food.
And because there are so many varieties of potato now being grown across the world, it is essential that the choice of potato – whether floury, versatile or waxy – is a match for the traditional recipe it has been designed for.
In Denmark this is easy. There they love the varieties that come from Lammefjord, thin-skinned potatoes like ditta, exquisa and jutlandia that keep their shape.
The Italians, who make those delicious potato dumplings, grow numerous varieties in the potassium-rich volcanic soils around Lake Bolsena between Rome and Florence. These varieties – agata, agria, amber, arizona, chopin, finka, marabel, monalisa, universa, vivaldi – are all perfect for gnocchi, and also for fritters and omelettes.
Back in Belgium, where the potato is the epitome of the people-place-produce philosophy of traditional food, they have Dutch teacher and potato specialist Kornelis Lieuwes de Vries to thank for the bintje variety. After constant specialisation over 25 years, it was the cross between fransen and munstersen that produced the succesful bintje variety, named after Bintje Jansma, one of his pupils, in 1905!
Potatoes are graded into cooking categories, A, B, C and D – ranging from firm to soft. For our purposes here are some of the varieties used in traditional dishes.
AGATA (A-B) Early, light yellow, multi-purpose, mashed, salad.
AGRIA (B-C) Summer, deep yellow, multi-purpose, fried, mashed.
ASPARAGUS (A) Main, deep yellow, boiled, salad.
BINTJE (B-C) Early, yellow, fried, mashed, roasted.
CHALLENGER (B) Early-Main, light yellow, fried.
CHARLOTTE (B-A) Summer, yellow, boiled, salad.
DESIRÉE (B-C) Summer, yellow, fried, mashed.
FONTANE (B) Summer-Late, yellow, fried.
JUTLANDIA (A-B) Medium-Early, golden-yellow, multi-purpose.
LADY CHRISTA (A-B) Early, yellow, fried, new.
MONALISA (B) Early, yellow, multi-purpose, mashed.
NICOLA (A-B) Late, yellow, boiled, salad.
OSTARA (B) Early, pale yellow, multi-purpose.
ROOSTER (C-D) Late, yellow, baked.
SAVA (B) Medium-Early, yellow, boiled.
SIRTEMA (B) Early, yellow, fried.
SPUNTA (B) Early, yellow, multi-purpose.
STELLA (A-B) Summer, yellow, boiled, salad.
URGENTA (B) Summer, yellow, fried.
VICTORIA (B) Summer, yellow, baked, boiled, salad, soup.
The agata and agria are regarded as the best potatoes for mash, specifically dumplings
The bintje and challenger for fries.
The lady christa for new potato use.
The stella and victoria for salads.
Traditional Dishes featuring Potatoes
Potatoes are an essential ingredient in traditional cooking throughout Europe and in parts of America and Asia. These traditional dishes give an idea of the scope of this versatile ingredient.
- Ajogañán SPAIN aromatic potatoes with fish
- Aloo Matar / Vegetable Curry EUROPE INDIAN SUB-CONTINENT
- Aloo Saag BRITAIN INDIAN SUB-CONTINENT spinach and potato
- Älplermagronen Klassiker SWITZERLAND cheese, pasta and potatoes
- Anjovisläda SWEDEN anchovy, potato gratin
- Baked Potato IRELAND
- Batatas Confitadas SPAIN candied potatoes
- Blynai Bulviniai LITHUANIA potato pancakes
- Blynai Kėdainių LITHUANIA meat-filled potato pancakes
- Bolinhos de Bacalhau PORTUGAL dried cod and potato balls
- Bómpes Patátas GREECE potato balls
- Boxty IRELAND cooked-raw potatoes
- Bozner Herrengröstl / Tiroler Gröstl AUSTRIA leftover meat and potato plate
- Bramborová Polévka CZECH REPUBLIC potato soup
- Brændende Kærlighed DENMARK Burning Love! potato mash with bacon and onions
- Bratkartoffeln mit Speck und Zwiebeln GERMANY fried potatoes with bacon and onion
- Bratkartoffeln mit Zwiebeln und Bratkartoffelgewürz GERMANY spiced fried potatoes with onion
- Brav u Mlijeku MONTENEGRO lamb in milk with potatoes
- Bryndza Koláč SLOVAKIA cheese, potato pies
- Bryndzové Halušky SLOVAKIA potato dumplings with Bryndza cheese, smoked bacon
- Bulviniai Blynai LITHUANIA potato pancake
- Bulviniai Paplotėliai su Brokoliais LITHUANIA broccoli, potato cakes
- Burgonyás Lángos HUNGARY fried potato flatbread
- Capretto con Patate ITALY kid goat with potatoes
- Carrageen, Mackerel, Potato Chowder IRELAND
- Cazzilli / Crocchè ITALY cheese and potato croquettes
- Chervonyy Borsch UKRAINE red stew
- Chowder IRELAND fish soup with potatoes
- Ciorba de Potroace ROMANIA potato soup
- Coddle IRELAND bacon, potato and sausage casserole
- Colcannon IRELAND kale and potato mash
- Cornish Pasty ENGLAND diced beef, onion, potato, swede pastry
- Cotriade FRANCE fish, onion and potato soup
- Cottage Pie ENGLAND potato-topped meat and vegetable pie
- Criadillas de la Tierra SPAIN potato omelette (a potato recipe from 1611, published in Francisco Martínez Motiño’s Arte de Cocina)
- Cullen Skink SCOTLAND smoked haddock, onion, potato soup
- Didžkukuliai (Cepelinai) LITHUANIA potato zeppelins
- Diots avec Pommes de Terre et des Sarments de Vigne FRANCE sausages with potatoes and vine shoots
- Donegal Champ IRELAND scallion and potato mash
- Döppekooche GERMANY potato cake with bacon and onions
- Draniki BELARUS potato pancakes
- Fadge IRELAND bacon, egg and potato cakes
- Farcement / Farçon FRANCE potato loaf with bacon, dried fruit and spices
- Farçon FRANCE puréed potatoes with eggs, herbs and spices
- Flæskesteg med Rødkål og Brunede Kartofler DENMARK pork chops with red cabbage and browned potatoes
- Focaccia Panino / Focaccia Farcite ITALY potato dough flatbread with cheese, salami, spinach, tomato
- Fondue Camembert Patate SWITZERLAND cheese sauce with potato
- Frico con Patate e Cipolla ITALY fried cheese with potato and onion
- Frico con Pecorino / Montasio e Patate e Cipolla ITALY cheese, onion, potato fritters
- Ftira tal-ġbejniet MALTA flat bread topped with curd cheese and potatoes
- Ftira tal-inova MALTA flat bread with anchovy, potatoes, tomatoes
- Ftira tat-toqlija MALTA fried onions, garlic and tomatoes on flatbread
- Găluşcă / Galuska / Haluška / Halušky BELARUS HUNGARY POLAND ROMANIA RUSSIA SLOVAKIA potato dumplings
- Gebratener Hering mit Kartoffestampf und Gurken, hartgekochte Eier und Apfel-Radieschen Vinaigrette GERMANY fried herring with potato mash, gherkins, hard-boiled eggs and apple-radish vinaigrette
- Gefüllte Kartoffeln GERMANY potato stuffed with cheese, egg
- Gelderse Stimp-Stamp NETHERLANDS bacon-smoked sausage, lettuce and potato stew
- Gnocchi di Patate / Gnocchi di Verona ITALY potato dumplings
- Gommer Cholera SWITZERLAND apple, cheese, pear, potato pie
- Gratin de Morue aux Aioli ANDORRA CATALONIA FRANCE SPAIN baked salt-cod with potatoes and garlic-olive oil dressing
- Grønlangkål med Skinke DENMARK kale with ham and caramelised potatoes
- Guiso Pelotas SPAIN meatballs and potatoes in soup
- Haggis and Chips SCOTLAND blood pudding with chipped potatoes
- Hamburger Labskaus GERMANY cured beef, herring, beetroot, potato, onion stew
- Hamsi Firinda TURKEY baked anchovies and potatoes
- Hasanpaşa Köftesi TURKEY meatballs with pureéd potatoes
- Idrijski Žlikrofi SLOVENIA potato filled pasta
- Insalata di Patate ITALY baked potato salad
- Irish Stew IRELAND hill lamb, onion, potato stew
- Jellied Eel / Pies, Potato Mash and Parsley Sauce ENGLAND
- Kainuun Rönttönen FINLAND lingonberry-potato rye pie
- Karjalanpiirakka FINLAND barley /potato / rice / vegetable rye / wheat pastry
- Kartofel’nyy Calat Картофельный Cалат BELARUS RUSSIA UKRAINE potato salad
- Kartoffel-Baumnuss-Brötchen SWITZERLAND potato and walnut bread rolls
- Kartoffeln in der Salzkruste GERMANY potatoes in salt crust
- Kartoffeln mit Äpfeln und Bratwürst GERMANY potatoes with apples, sausages
- Kartoffelknödel AUSTRIA GERMANY potato dumplings
- Kartoffelpuffer / Reiberdatschi mit Apfelmus GERMANY potato pancakes, apple sauce
- Kartoffelsalat / Warmer Kartoffelsalat GERMANY potato salad / hot potato salad
- Kartoffelsuppe AUSTRIA GERMANY SWITZERLAND potato soup
- Käse und Kartoffel Suppe SWITZERLAND cheese, potato soup
- Kėdainių Blynai LITHUANIA meat-filled potato pancake
- Keftédes CYPRUS lamb / pork, potato, mint meatballs
- Kilusalat BALTICS sprat, potato salad
- Kjøttkaker NORWAY beef / chicken, potato flour/starch, oats, ginger, nutmeg meatballs
- Kluski Ślaskie POLAND potato dumplings of Silesia
- Koláč so Bryndza a Zemiakový SLOVAKIA cheese and potato pie
- Köttbullar SWEDEN beef / pork/veal, potato meatballs
- Kraška Jota SLOVENIA thick bean, potato, sausage and vegetable soup
- Krompirjeva Juha SLOVENIA potato soup
- Labskaus GERMANY cured beef, herring, beetroot, potato, onion stew
- Lefse NORWAY potato pancakes
- Mackerel and Potatoes IRELAND
- Maluns SWITZERLAND toasted potato lumps
- Maneghi ITALY gnocchi with sweet potatoes
- Marillenknödel AUSTRIA apricot potato dumplings
- Masala Dosa ENGLAND fried onion, potato and spice wrap
- Meat and Potato Pies ENGLAND
- Merluza a la Gallega SPAIN hake with garlic and potatoes
- Mischleta SWITZERLAND apple, cheese, corn and potato gratin
- Musaka me Patate ALBANIA potato-meat bake
- Papas con Chocos SPAIN potatoes with cuttlefish
- Patate të Pjekura me Vezë ALBANIA baked potatoes
- Patatesli Peynirli Poğaça TURKEY potato cheese pastry
- Patate të Mjaltit ALBANIA honey potatoes
- Patatnik BULGARIA cheese, egg, potato pie
- Pie, Potato Mash and Parsley Sauce ENGLAND
- Platsindy s Kartoshkoy Плацинды с картошкой MOLDOVA potato pies
- Plokkfiskur ICELAND mashed haddock and potatoes
- Poronkäristys FINLAND reindeer, potatoes and lingonberry sauce
- Potaje de Garbanzos, Arroz y Patatas SPAIN rice with chickpeas and potatoes
- Potato crisps EUROPE
- Potato farls IRELAND thin potato cakes
- Potetlefse NORWAY griddle potato cakes
- Purée de Pommes de terre FRANCE baked potato mashed with butter, milk
- Raštan MONTENEGRO cabbage stuffed with meat, potato, rice and spices
- Reibekuchen / Rievkooche GERMANY grated potatoes
- Rösti Berner SWITZERLAND pan-fried boiled potatoes with bacon
- Rösti Ursprünglich SWITZERLAND original pan-fried boiled potatoes
- Rösti Zürcher SWITZERLAND pan-fried raw potatoes with caraway, onions
- Saarländischer Dippelappes GERMANY Saarland mashed potato cake with bacon, leeks and herbs
- Skordalia GREECE garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, potatoes, walnuts
- Sodd NORWAY lamb / mutton, carrot, potato spicy soup
- Stakanje ITALY potato-green bean-courgette compot
- Stamppot Boerenkool NETHERLANDS potato and kale with smoked sausage
- Stamppot Hete Bliksem NETHERLANDS apple/pear and potato with cinnamon and mint or crispy bacon/chicken liver/minced meat/sausage
- Stamppot Zuurkool NETHERLANDS potato, sauerkraut, smoked sausage
- Stiffner IRELAND buttermilk, mashed potato
- Stoemp BELGIUM LUXEMBOURG NETHERLANDS mashed potatoes and vegetables, nutmeg
- Stoficado FRANCE cod, garlic, olive, onion, potato, red pepper, tomato Stew
- Stovies SCOTLAND potato, onion and leftover meat stew
- Štruklji Sirovi SLOVENIA potato filled pastries
- Sütte Levrek ve Pazılı Patates TURKEY seabass with milk sauce, sauteed potatoes and Swiss chard
- Svinemørbrad bøffer med løg, kartofler og brun sovs DENMARK pork tenderloin steaks with onions, potatoes and brown sauce
- Tartiflette FRANCE bacon, cheese and potato bake
- Terchovej Zemiakový Koláč SLOVAKIA potato cake of Terchová
- Tierteg LUXEMBOURG potato mash, sauerkraut
- Topik ARMENIA chickpea-potato stuffed balls
- Torta di Patate ITALY almond, sugar, potato cakes
- Tortino di Patate con Guanciale ITALY potato pie with cured pork cheek and neck
- Trinxat ANDORRA bacon, cabbage and potato cakes
- Truffade FRANCE cheese and potato pancake
- Truita de Patata i Ceba CATALONIA potato omelette
- Val Divedro Cuchêla ITALY bacon, pork ribs, potatoes, salami / sausages, seasonal vegetables
- Virtinukai UKRAINE potato dumplings/noodles
- Voveraite LITHUANIA chanterelle sautéed with onions and potatoes
- Wirsing Untereinander GERMANY savoy cabbage with bacon and onion / potatoes
- Zapekané Zemiaky s Bryndzou a Pažítkou SLOVAKIA baked potato with cheese, chives
- Zemiakový Koláč SLOVAKIA cheese and potato pie
- Zemiakové Placky SLOVAKIA potato pancakes