The modest tuber that conquered the world
Potatoes are indigenous to the Andes Mountains in Peru, where they were first domesticated more than 7,000 years ago. Classified as a stem tuber, a type of plant in which the only edible part is the root, potatoes are from the solanaceae family and are a part of a group commonly referred to as the nightshades.
Potatoes were introduced to Europe around the 16th century and, despite being initially viewed with suspicion, their popularity soon spread, in part because the plants adapt well to cultivation in most climates, but mainly because of their versatility. This unassuming vegetable was quickly adopted into traditional foods of many cultures.
In the case of Ireland, where the potato famine was a turning point in the country's history, colcannon mash is the national dish, while bangers and mash and shepherd’s pie are Great Britain's reigning classics. In Switzerland, it’s the rosti, and travel to India and Sri Lanka and you’ll find potato curries galore. Anywhere there is tradition of salted fish, which is anywhere from Iceland to Portugal, you’ll find it classically prepared with potatoes. Plus, let’s not forget the irresistible Italian gnocchi. Potato skins are also useful, they contain the most nutrients, they’re used in Russia to make vodka and have even been utilised as a treatment for burn victims.
The gem that is the potato
I’ve been known to declare favourites quite freely, however potatoes really are one of my all-time most beloved vegetables. They can be wrangled into so many different forms; roasted, baked, mashed, fried, all of which are excellent.
Hot chips are one thing I couldn't live without. In fact, deep-fry a potato in any form and I’m happy. Currently, I believe a boiled-then-fried Dutch Cream is the best. My secret vice? Late-night eating of potato gems with Tabasco. My boyfriend claims to make the best potato puree in the world and I think he may actually be right (possibly due to an excessive amount of milk and butter), but it is definitely a bowl of the creamiest mash I’ve ever eaten.
In fact, I think you’ll find most methods of potato cooking are best when there is a lot of fat, salt and pepper involved. Roasting potatoes in duck fat is a fine example of this. The other things I love eating with potatoes are herbs, everything from the harder varieties, such as sage, rosemary and thyme, to last-minute additions of parsley, chives or chervil.
Growing and seasonality
Potatoes tend to be grown not from seed, but from what is known as a seed piece – a part of potato with a few eyes in it. This is done for a couple of reasons, one being that it is too slow to commercially grow it from actual seeds and also, more importantly, to avoid viruses and diseases that are a common hazard in potato growing in Australia.
Once planted, the size of the potato doubles in size each week for as long as the plant is alive. At any time within this stage, you can harvest what is known, regardless of variety, as a new potato. New potatoes are easily identifiable as their skin is still soft and can easily be scraped off with a fingernail.
Once the actual potato plant dies, which is anywhere between 12-16 weeks, the potato stops growing and is ready for harvesting. On small-scale farms, this is done by hand as any damage to the fragile skin means they won’t last as long. Most potatoes are given time to “cure” – a drying process that helps the skin set and allows potatoes to be stored for up to 12 months in the right conditions (unwashed and in a cool dark spot).
Although potatoes are often associated with winter comfort foods, the best new potatoes are usually found in spring. Given their durability, though, potato plants in NSW are usually planted from August all the way to January, giving them a long season and allowing them year-round availability.
Waxy or floury?
There are more than 4,000 different types of domesticated potatoes available; a mind-boggling amount, really. However, they all fall into two main categories: waxy and floury, with some potatoes fall regarded as both. Potatoes, like humans, can have multiple personalities, depending on where they are grown and how long they have been stored for.
Floury potatoes have lots of starch, a low water content and often very white flesh. This makes them ideal for baking, mashing and the perfect choice for making gnocchi, for which I use the Desiree. Other varieties include Sebago, Spunta, Pontiac and King Edward.
Waxy potatoes have a lower starch but higher water content. They remain firmer when boiled, and popular belief says they aren’t as good for mashing. (However, my boyfriend’s puree made with waxy potatoes soundly disproves this theory.) Secretly, I veer towards the waxy ones - kipflers with their knobbly shape that are so annoying to clean, Tassie Pink Eye’s with a slight blush on their skin, and the aforementioned Dutch Creams, which are my current obsession.
One of the great beauties of potatoes is they can transform themselves into so many forms and their flavour can go with almost anything – I’ve even used them to make a sweet dessert fritole. Not only do all the varieties have their own distinct flavour and use, they are also the perfect carrier to match almost anything.
Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Lynsey Fryers. Food preparation by Suresh Watson.
Potatoes from Moonacres Farm.