When spud became celebrity

Viva la spud. (Photograph: Potatoes South Africa.)

IT’S a while ago now but I still remember how the news excited me: 2008 was the International Year of the Potato. To be sure, it was groundbreaking stuff. So significant in fact, that the initiative was officially announced by the general assembly of the United Nations at the organisation’s headquarters in New York in October 2007.

“Finally,” I exclaimed loudly, as I read the news, “the world’s tastiest and most underrated tuber will enjoy the celebrity status it deserves.”

“At last,” I proclaimed, brandishing my masher in triumph at a bowl of up until then smug-looking Shiitake mushrooms, “trendsetting foodies and fundis will be encouraged to unearth some creativity when they prepare potatoes and thrust the spud into the Prada-heeled world of the rich, famous and fashionable. Viva la spud!”

Over the top? Probably, but I have been partial to potatoes – baby or full-grown, jacketed or peeled, boiled, mashed, steamed, roasted, wedged, fried, creamed and sautéed – forever. Whether my predilection is due to my Irish ancestry or because I recall, with pleasure, my father’s fields of potatoes in KwaZulu-Natal and how good – freshly dug and simply baked – the vegetables tasted at dinner, I am not sure. Certainly, memories of those fields are happy ones, including the recollection I have of a story told a youthful me by a very old Zulu man, Mr Ngobo as we admired a new crop on the farm one day.

“Ah,” he said, pointing a bony finger at a large, bare patch of soil in the field, “the porcupines have been.”

On closer observation, we saw that that the plants above the ground were broken and had been cast aside. The soil below had been thoroughly and efficiently excavated, and the potatoes plundered. There was no evidence however, that any of the vegetables had been eaten or even tasted in the vicinity.

I looked at the old man enquiringly, “Porcupines?” I asked. “But, how do they take so many? And so neatly?”

He nodded sagely and explained, “Porcupines are clever. Have you seen how many quills they have? Many, of course. Porcupines come at night, dig up the potatoes, collect them together in a big heap and then roll themselves over the pile, stabbing the vegetables with their quills as they do so. The roll back and forth for sometime and, once they have fixed a potato on each quill, they take their treasure back to their burrows to eat later and to share with their families. Yes, porcupines are very clever.”

Clinging to a last smidgen of doubt, I glanced at my father. With a silent nod, he confirmed Mr Ngobo’s account of the missing potatoes.

For many nights after that, my small brothers and I staked out the potato field, hoping to see a porcupine practice its potato pilfering skills. We never got lucky.

Indeed, for whatever reason, I am partial to potatoes. So are porcupines. The problem, I believe (I cannot speak for the porcupines), is that although South African potato producers grow and sell up to 30 different varieties of potatoes, each with distinctive characteristics and suited to various methods of preparation, we are largely uninformed in this regard. Apart from the occasional “best for baking”, “suitable for all types of cooking” and “Mediterranean-style” distinction on packaging, most potatoes that are sold in local supermarkets are as generic as the colour yellow at an ANC congress – and perform even less predictably when placed in hot water.

As Mario de Agrela of Bryanston Fruit & Veg – which has been supplying the local community and hospitality industry with fruit and vegetables for 35 years – explains, selecting potatoes is an important business. If you mismatch potato and method of cooking you can end up with collapsed roast potatoes, greasy sticks of cardboard instead of French fries, dreadfully discoloured and stodgy baked potatoes, and/or pasty Polyfiller instead of mash.

“South African farmers produce excellent potatoes all year round. However, it is not always clear to consumers which cultivars best suit their needs, particularly when – in-store or at market – potatoes are emptied out of their bags, which generally tell you what cultivar they are,” he says.

“At our shops (de Agrela also operates Impala Fruiters at Northcliff), we generally stock the BP1 variety, which has a firm texture and is excellent for roasting and stews. We also keep a cultivar called Up-To-Date, which has white flesh, a floury texture and breaks easily. It is ideal for mashed and baked potatoes, also for chips and curries. Then there are red potatoes (sometimes called Mediterranean potatoes), which are waxy, firm tubers that are good for long-cooking meals and salads because they do not break up. We make a point of asking our customers what they plan to do with the potatoes to help ensure they buy the most suitable varieties and get the best cooking result.”

The good news is that there are moves a foot locally to extend the knowledge of potatoes and choice of cultivar beyond specialist greengrocers like de Agrela. Industry organisation, Potato South Africa is currently working on a campaign that will advise retailers and consumers on these matters.

“Generally, South Africans want washed, white potatoes, which makes the cultivar, Mondial the most sought-after variety in this country,” explains Estelle Theron, who is the editor of Potato South Africa’s magazine, Chip (really). “But we want to teach people about the other cultivars too. Our campaign will tell them about the appealing characteristics of potatoes that they might be missing out on by not knowing about other cultivars. We will give them information on how to prepare them to get the best eating results.”

(This article was originally published in The Weekender in April 2008.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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