The Incas worshipped them and buried them with their dead. They’ve been credited with curing warts and causing babies to be born with big heads.
The German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that a diet consisting predominantly of them “leads to the use of liquor”, which would be enough for some of us to stockpile them, just in case.
In France in the 17th century they were thought to cause everything from leprosy to rampant sexuality, and were outlawed lest they caused the general populace either to multiply madly or die trying.
Brillat-Savarin, the great French 19th century gourmand, considered them tasteless and charged that they were only good in a famine. Which wouldn’t have been much comfort to the Irish, given that they had a deadly famine for lack of them, and even today have a fairly sparse population as a result.
Even Mrs Beeton, in her 1862 Book of Household Management, urged caution, saying that the water in which they were cooked was harmful to the health.
Yes, we’re talking about the potato, perhaps most aptly described in this old Irish saying: “If beef’s the king of meat,potato’s the queen of the garden world.”
The Irish also have arguably the world’s best potato joke: An old man wrote to his son, who was in prison, saying he had become too frail to dig his garden so that he could plant his potatoes. The son wrote back, “For heaven’s sake, Da, don’t dig the garden up, that’s where I buried the guns!”
His bewildered father wrote back to say that a squad of English soldiers had turned up a few days later and dug for hours but hadn’t found any trace of the guns; they must be gone.
The son wrote back: “That’s fantastic, Da. Now plant the potatoes.”
You and I, if we are typical of our species, have eaten 330kgs potatoes in the past decade. There are few sane human beings who don’t love them, whether fried in the way the Belgians do them (no, not the French – it’s Belgium that perfected the frite), roasted in that quintesseintially British way, made into gnocchi as the Italians would have it, or grated and turned into a magnificent pan of rosti, as the Swiss prefer it.
Yet these are only the tiniest fraction of the myriad ways in which a potato can become one of the most tempting things ever put on a plate – as evidenced by anyone who has ever ordered a plate of chips between rounds in a pub and counted the seconds until they were all gone.
But there’s more to a potato than just chips or plain mash. For your next dinner party, make individual potato bakes in ramekins, use caramelised onion and garlic to turn mashed potato into something heavenly, make perfectly golden roast potatoes the best British way, or turn out fondant potatoes worthy of a top chef.
Potato bake in ramekins
Grease ramekins with butter. Thinly slice potatoes and trim to fit. Layer potatoes, dotting each layer with nobs of butter and seasoning with salt and pepper as you go. Sprinkle a little nutmeg over each layer. Pour cream over to just cover the top level, grate nutmeg on top, and bake in a 180ºC oven for an hour. Keep warm.
Golden Roast Potatoes
Pour sunflower or olive oil halfway up a bread tin, and put in a hot oven until the oil is piping hot. Peel potatoes, plop them in a saucepan of cold water, bring to the boil and boil hard for 10 minutes. Remove, drain, and return the potatoes to the empty saucepan. This bit is important. Put the saucepan back on the heat and shake carefully, tossing the parcooked potatoes to burn away any water. Carefully drop the potatoes into the hot oil and roast in a hot oven (at least 180ºC) until you could kill to eat them. I’ve roasted potatoes in several different ways, but this method is the best by far for classic roasties, perfectly soft inside and crisp and golden outside. The key: they must be parcoooked, and totally dry, when they go into very hot oil.
Garlicky mashed potato
Simmer finely chopped shallots (or spring onions) with finely chopped garlic in butter over a lowish heat until golden brown. Cook peeled potatoes in well salted boiling water until very soft but not falling apart. Drain thoroughly and dry with kitchen paper. Mash the potatoes until thoroughly smooth, add milk, plenty of butter and cream, stirring. Fold in the onion and garlic. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Most of us aren’t in the habit of making this at home, but it’s very rewarding, especially if, like me, you happen to have thyme growing in a pot. You need enough chicken stock to cover the potatoes in an oven dish or deep stove-top pan. The first thing about fondant potatoes is their shape. Peel and cut the potatoes into neat rounds 2.5cm thick. Trim the sharp edges to round them off, like the edge of a well-made table. So what you have is thick spheres of potato with curvy edges. Simmer them on all sides in butter for about 20 minutes to thoroughly brown them, shaking the pan to prevent sticking. Cover with chicken stock (use a cube, Daisy), about three tablespoons of butter and two or three sprigs of thyme and simmer for 20 minutes. Top up with stock and continue simmering uncovered until the stock has cooked away and the potatoes are soft and lovely. Season with salt and pepper. A similar effect can be achieved in the oven.
Now tuck in, and be sure to have plenty of wine to hand.
First published in Weekend Argus, Cape Town, February 2010