Potatoes a worldwide phenomenon

I’VE always viewed potatoes as being fairly non intrusive, non offensive and harmless. Roast them, boil them, mash them, slice them and fry them, even put them in a salad … but I’ve never really given much thought to their history.

If an unnamed quiz show host had asked me, for a million dollars, what the origins of the potato were, I would have used up all my lifelines, gone to the phones and called Con the fruiterer.

More than likely Con would have told me that it was those Andean Inca fellows who first discovered potatoes growing wild in the highlands.

The indigenous people of South America, more specifically Peru, Ecuador and northern Chile have been documented as the original potato cultivators. It seems the Incas used the potato as a staple food source, to treat illness and injury, and even to tell the time. So worshiped was the potato that, if crops failed, a number of blokes who picked the short straw had their noses and lips mutilated in ceremonies to appease the potato gods.

It wasn’t until the Incas came into contact with the Spanish in the early 16th century that the potato was introduced to the world.

The Spanish soldiers used the potato as emergency provisions as they continued their regional conquests.

After subduing the Spanish forces in the Caribbean, Sir Francis Drake loaded up his ship with a few sacks of potatoes for the trip home. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sir Walter Raleigh first cultivated potatoes as a food source in Europe, but it is important to add that nobody but the Irish was actually willing to eat potatoes. The Scots and the English were not quite as adventurous and it would be a number of years before they would be convinced.

The Irish dependence on potatoes is well documented, as is evidenced by the great potato famine in 1845, when black rot destroyed most of the crop. Although during the famine years Ireland was producing enough corn, sheep and grain to feed its population several times over, the English exported these “money crops”, leaving the Irish to starve. And up to a million of them did.

The story of the potato would not be complete without a word or two concerning discovery of french fries. Depending on who you ask it was either the French or the Belgians who invented the process where sliced potatoes are deep-fried. McDonald’s has researched the process of deep fried potatoes and, in 1957, opened a research lab dedicated to perfecting the art of fries.

What no Western Potatoes! Here in WA the humble potato is one of the most significant crops grown in the South West. Much of WA has an ideal climate and potatoes are grown in an area that stretches from Gingin in the north to Albany in the south. The region is frost free and, more importantly, is disease free. This has enabled WA to produce quality potatoes with very little chemical input, making the WA product more desirable in lucrative overseas markets.

The major varieties grown here for consumption on the table are Delaware, Nadine and Desiree. The Russet Burbank, Kennebec and Shepody are grown for french fry production and the Atlantic and Cadima are for crisping. Potatoes are available throughout the year but the supply is heaviest between December and May.

Here’s a list of some of the more popular potatoes and how best to prepare them.

Delaware: cream skin colour, best for boiling and baking.

Desiree: pink/red skin colour, best for boiling and baking.

Leonardo: light yellow skin colour great all rounder.

Russet Burbank: brown skin colour, all rounder, but particularly good for frying.

Atlantic: white skin colour, bake, fry or crisp.

Potatoes should be removed from plastic bags and stored either in brown paper bags or in a dark, cool place, like the bottom of a cupboard. Potatoes like to have air circulating around them. Refrigeration of potatoes tends to turn the starches into high levels of sugar and turns the vegetable brown when frying. You never eat a potato that has begun to turn green. High glycoalkaloid levels are responsible for the potatoes turning green and have, in some extreme cases, caused human and livestock deaths. Potatoes are a good source of vitamin C and carbohydrates.

Most potatoes are made up of about 80 per cent water and only 20 per cent solids, and an eight ounce baked potato has about 100 calories.

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