Object lesson

7th July 2000 at 01:00
Mashed, they are the ultimate comfort food, the creamy accompaniment to sausages and pies. Baked, they become delicious, leathery pods, light and white as snow inside. Fried, they are the ubiquitous, crispy chip, which goes with everything. Boiled, they are a cheap staple of our diet and a sweet seasonal treat. The potato appears in soups and salads, as hash browns or latkes, roasted or rosti, croquettes and crisps. It can do all this and more. So don't call it humble. The potato is a prince among veg, a super-tuber. But it wasn't always so.

The potato's roots lie in the Andes, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. But when Sir Walter Raleigh brought the plant to England in the late 16th century it was viewed with suspicion because of its resemblance to the poisonous deadly nightshade. Like the chilli pepper, tomato, aubergine, and Sir Walter's other discovery, the tobacco plant, they all belong to the solanacae family.

It took 200 years for the potato to become a major crop in Britain. The Irish were quicker to cultivate it, but their over-reliance on it contributed to the disastrous fmine when blight struck in the 1840s. Its culinary adaptability is due in part to its starchiness, which gives it strength and texture even though it is 80 per cent water. Potato starch is used as a thickener in other foods and scientists have investigated it as a possible component of paints and plastics. There are around 400 varieties of potato available in the UK, but only about 15 make it to the shops.

The spud (from the word for a kind of spade used to dig them) is still as popular as a bowl of crisps at a children's party. We stand third in the world league of potato heads - only the Portuguese and Irish eat more.

Potatoes are unique. Of the 6 million tonnes we produce each year, every one is different - no two spuds see eye to eye. And, unusually, its fruit is also its seed as new plants are grown from old potatoes. Sadly, an appreciation of the potato's characteristics seems to be lacking in the next generation. Half the six to nine-year-olds surveyed recently by the British Potato Council believed potatoes grew on trees. And I had always thought that was money.

Harvey McGavin


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