Despite monikers like Irish Potatoes and French Fries, most people are aware that the humble potato is a native of South America, and one of the treasures brought back to Spain by the conquistadors, along with the tons of gold that now grace churches and palaces in Seville, the Vatican and all over Europe.
On the other side of the pond, potatoes became wildly popular, although the tubers were once believed to be as poisonous as the plant that springs from them. But cultivation spread far and wide once people realized how healthful, versatile and easy to grow the potato is. Italy embraced them in their gnocchi, Indian food features them in wonderful vegetarian dishes, the Scandinavians love them with fish dishes and stews; you name it. Then we have Swedish potato pancakes (with lingonberries!), and innumerable other Northern European delights: potato sausage, potato salad, pierogis and vodka!
This has been quite a trip for a tuber from south of the Equator!
Unfortunately, the potato became such a staple that it caused the death of millions of Irish, whose rural poor had become totally reliant on the spuds which were devastated by a mold known as Potato Blight, resulting in a deadly famine in the mid-19th century. Making matters worse, those who subsisted on potatoes were planting only one variety, the Irish Lumper, so when the disease hit, it wiped out a massive proportion of what people depended on to live.
On a happier side, the French embrace of the potato was more varied, and it never was a group’s sole source of nutrition, even in those areas where they became the most popular. And, we still look to France for some of the most delicious recipes, from the myriad kinds of French fries (all of which have distinct French names and classic culinary pairings, such as mussels with French fries), to pommes rissolees (browned in fat, never referred to as frite, or fried), to waxy potatoes steamed/peeled/drizzled in butter, to vichyssoise (cold leek and potato soup). Belgians also love them, always fresh and crisp in sidewalk kiosks (and served with mayonnaise for dipping).
But, the traveling potato aside, the most exciting place in the world to find potatoes is South America, Peru in particular. Over 4,000 varieties of potato grow there and elsewhere in the Andes, related but biologically diverse, and they have been the staple food of indigenous people for generation upon generation.
On one visit to Cuzco, Peru, myMEGusta stumbled upon a Potato Festival taking place in the halls of the Monasteria, a very fancy hotel converted from a religious institution.
Some of them don’t even look much like potatoes, and certainly require different cooking techniques than tossing into an oven and baking. Potato preservation is different, too. You find giant bags of dried potatoes known as chuno in the marketplaces, preserved for year round use in traditional dishes like soups and stews. Today, they are freeze dried to expedite the process.
For more about a wildly popular modern day potato preparation from Peru, causas – little fresh potato cakes garnished with various goodies- visit myMEGusta’s posting from July 2013: https://mymegusta.com/2013/07/02/mellow-yellow-potato-all-for-a-good-causa/
A marketing consultant and devotee of fine dining, Mary Ellen Griffin is also the creator and author of myMEGusta.com, the blog about some of life’s great pleasures: Eating well, and travel experiences – particularly those involved with markets & local foods. Mary Ellen holds an MBA from NYU, an MS in Journalism from Columbia University, and is a graduate of Wellesley College. She has studied cooking at the Lycee Technique Hotelier, Paris, France, via a Craig Claiborne Scholarship, as well as at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.