Also Known As: Taters, Spuds
Popular Varieties: Estima, Maris Piper, Charlotte, King Edward, Desiree
Store At: Potatoes should be stored between 5 and 12°C.
Comes From: Worldwide; potatoes do best in temperate countries, moderate rainfall is required to swell tubers.
Seasonality: All year round
You could say Potatoes are one of the five most important foods in the world, and you would be right. The Food and Agriculture commission confirmed this when in 2005, it recorded worldwide production as being 322 million (metric) tons – that’s a whole lot of potatoes! They are the fourth most important source of food energy in the world after rice, wheat and maize, and are the worlds’ most important tuber crop.
For that is what potatoes are; a tuber. A tuber is different to a root; it is an underground storage organ, in which the potato stores energy in the form of carbohydrate; primarily starch. The balance of sugars to starches is what varies tastes and uses of potatoes between varieties.
There are several main "classes" of potatoes; these were originally white round, russetted, and red, but has recently been extended to include speciality and gourmet, to include any varieties that don’t fit in the original three. However, all potatoes are more commonly split depending upon their optimum use: baking (they retain their shape when baked), roasting (they have good flavour when roasted), boiling (they hold some shape when boiled), salad (usually firm and waxy when boiled) or mashing (they mash into a smooth pulp without fibres or grains). Potatoes are not limited to just white and red varieties, you can get yellow, purple, blue and even black skinned potatoes!
Most people know not to eat green potatoes, because they are poisonous. However what most people don’t realise is all potatoes are technically poisonous, but don’t run off scared yet!
Potatoes contain compounds called glycoalkaloids, the two primary ones being solanine (which you may have heard of) and chaconine. They are both metabolic poisons, present in the greatest concentrations underneath the skin; their concentration increases with exposure to light. The green in potatoes is not these glycoalkaloids, instead it’s chlorophyll, which also develops in the presence of light, which is why the green is a good indication of the presence of glycoalkaloids. It is not a definitive guide however, since they can occur independently of each other. Cooking at high temperatures (over 170°C or 340°F) partly destroys them, which is why boiling does not!
Why are all potatoes poisonous then? This is because these glycoalkaloids are present in all potatoes, but not in toxic quantities; 200mg of solanine is classed as a dangerous dose, which could be received by eating one medium sized green potato, or more than 10 good potatoes (about 3 pounds or 1.5kg) at one time.
Potatoes are now grown in over 125 countries worldwide, and as such have gathered quite a collection of names; the original name “potato” came from the Spanish “patata”, in turn coming from the American Indian word “Batata”. In Ireland they are known as spuds (a term derived from a tool used to harvest them) or taters, and in Scotland as taters or murphies. In America, they are sometimes known as “Irish Potatoes” to differentiate them from Sweet Potatoes which whilst appearing similar, are actually completely unrelated and are in fact a storage root rather than a tuber.
Potato storage is tricky, but easy to get the hand of. They should not be refrigerated: this causes the starches in the potatoes to be converted to sugars, giving them an unnaturally sweet taste. This sugar will caramelize during cooking producing brown potatoes with poor taste. However at room temperature they will only last for a week or two before losing too much moisture and shrivelling; they should ideally be stored between 5-12°C, in a dark place to prevent sprouting.
Approximately 7,000 years of potato history has been tracked down, starting in Peru and the Andes in 5,000BC and spreading from there. Pre-cursors of the Inca civilisation originally cultivated it and it originally grew in Native South American tribes. It’s first appearance in Europe was in 1537, when the Spanish conquistador Castellanos discovered the tuber when raiding a village in South America, and brought it back to Spain. It is thought they were introduced to England by Sir Francis Drake around the time of the Spanish Armada.
The potatoes spread across Europe was initially slow; people distrusted them as a food. Since the potato was not mentioned in the bible (probably due to its origins in South America rather than Eastern Europe), some people refused to eat it, with Russian peasants christening them “Devil’s Apples”, and many other people associating potatoes with common diseases; the French believed them to cause leprosy. It was not until the late 18th century that they finally were accepted.
France largely accepted potatoes following the famine following the Seven Years’ War; a French scientist Antoine Parmentier wrote of their usefulness as a famine food whilst eating them during his time as a prisoner of war in Prussia; after the war he established soup kitchens in Paris largely based around potatoes. Parmentier also created French fries, serving them at a dinner solely based around potatoes to honour Benjamin Franklin, who was not particularly impressed; it was a later president, Thomas Jefferson, who introduced French Fries to America.
Potatoes were however introduced to America earlier than this, one record dates this to around 1719 in New Hampshire, by Scottish-Irish settlers, although earlier documents record the Governor of Bermuda, Captain Nathaniel Butler, sending a cargo of potatoes to Francis Wyatt, the governor of Virginia in 1621.
The one nation who bought into the virtues of potatoes early paid dearly for it. Potatoes arrived in Ireland not long after England (it’s thought that wreckage from ships of the Spanish Armada inadvertently brought potatoes to Irelands’ shores), and before long it became a primary crop. This was due mainly to their high productivity, if the Irish could survive on a crop that took up less land, there would be a greater area free for wheat production for export. By 1650 potatoes were the staple food of Ireland and a large part of its national diet. They also began to replace wheat as the major crop throughout Europe, for feeding both people and animals.
However mother nature is not always on our side. In 1845 and 1846, a late outbreak of potato blight, a fungal disease that devastates the growing top of potatoes and turns the tubers to mush, ripped through Europe, wiping out the crop in many countries. This had devastating consequences in Ireland; it is estimated 1 million people died during the Irish Potato Famine, and millions more emigrated, largely to Northern America. Ireland continued to export crops during the famine, but the high price of the exported food meant the poor Irish peasants could not afford to buy it for themselves.
Potatoes are a very high energy food source; they have a high carbohydrate content in the form of starch and sugars, and also contain protein and vitamins (particularly vitamin C). However, the method of preparation determines just how much of this goodness is retained.
The obvious use for potatoes is boiling them; either peeled or unpeeled for new varieties with softer skins, whole or cut into pieces, with or without seasoning. Cooking is largely required for any preparation, breaking down the starch and making the potatoes edible. Once boiled, they can be served whole or mixed with butter and mashed or creamed. Steaming is an alternative to boiling, which retains more of the nutrients.
Baked potatoes are also popular; the potato is usually (but not always) baked in its skin, and served with varied accompaniments, ranging from plain cheese, to maiyonnaise, tuna, chicken, chilli con carne or others, depending on what is provided where it is prepared. Potatoes are also good roasted in the oven, a good serving companion to roast chicken, or beef.
Potatoes can be sliced and fried; these are usually termed chips (in England) or French fries elsewhere, although these can also be oven baked (which will retain less fat and is more healthy). Potatoes can be cut into thin strips and fried (hash browns or rosti/potato pancakes), or formed into dumplings.
Another popular use is potato chips (or crisps in England), where thin strips of potato are fried or roasted until dry and then flavoured. As you can see, the number of food uses for potatoes is simply astronomical.
It's best to prepare soil in late Autumn or early Winter, and let it settle over the winter. Plenty of compost (preferably peat-free) or other organic material should be dug into the ground when preparing, and add some general purpose fertiliser too: bonemeal or growmore are excellent, or chicken manure pellets if you're growing organic.
- Wikipedia article on Champagne Products
- Jersey Royals Homepage
- Hot Potato
- General Information
- Potato Link Resource
- Variety Selection
- Potatoes on Wikipedia
- General information
There are many different varieties of potatoes, (around 4,000 in Peru alone), which are split up into three groups: first earlies, second earlies and maincrop. Early potatoes are planted (in the UK and similar temperate zones) around March, and typically harvested between July and August; they are usually smaller sized potatoes with a smaller yield and are sometimes called New Potatoes. Maincrop are planted around April, and harvested between August and October, and usually have higher yields. Popular varieties include Maris Piper, King Edward, Charlotte, Rocket, Pentland Javelin, and who could forget Jersey Royal.
Originally bred in the Netherlands, estima is a second early variety although is usually grown as a main-crop due to its very high yields. It has good resistance to drought and bruising, and they are good for boiling and frying.
A white maincrop potato, this is one of the favourites for roasting for Sunday Dinners; for the best roasting result, they should be part boiled before roasting, to soften them up. This variety goes green very easily if left in the light.
Good for baking, boiling and chipping, cara is a late maincrop variety, with good resistance against bruising and potato virus. It has white skin with pink eyes, and cream coloured flesh.
Probably the most well known coloured potato, this red-skin yellow-flesh main crop variety has good disease resistance although it is quite susceptible to scab. It was originally bred in the Netherlands.
Jersey Royal (International Kidney)
Jersey Royal potatoes are actually the International Kidney variety; only when grown on the island of Jersey in the off the coast of England can they claim the trademarked "Champagne Status" name Jersey Royal, these are some of the most famous and most eagerly awaited potatoes in England. The first crop arrives around late April (although this is starting much earlier of recent years due to increasingly artificial inducing of the crop) and last until early July, and are some of the most tastiest potatoes you will ever taste. The first potatoes usually fetch a price of around £6 per kg (by contrast 1kg of maincrop potatoes usually goes for around £0.30). The potatoes are still farmed using traditional hand methods on the hills of Jersey.
This is a good variety for baking, being typically very large and round with a creamy texture. They can go green quickly once washed however and bruise very easily.
This second early variety has cream flesh and cream skin is good for boiling and chipping. It is one of the best tasting British new potato varieties, with a smooth waxy texture and sweet flavour.
A large strong maincrop plant that produces yellowish-white potatoes, Maris Piper are good for frying, steaming, mashing or roasting making them a chip shop favourite in the UK.