Odyssey of the potato

2018-07-25

This article about potatoes is literally a story, a trip that relies on colorful protagonists: everything begins with the Quechua God Apu, then comes the Spanish conquistadores, European pirates, Van Gogh … We will see among the lines the myth of the potato, its randomness  through all of those years, its importance in nowadays’ Peruvian gastronomy.

As an old and cruel legend tells, everything begins in Andahuaylas at the edge of the Titicaca Lake. The landlords were naturally bad people, and decided to starve their population by cutting drastically the portions of quinoa. Still, the population’s sorrow and their prayers were heard by Apu, god of the mountain. He strived to make some nutritious flowers grow, which fruits would stop the starving of its worshippers. But seeing that, the landlords, furious, destroyed every flower. Resourceful and having anticipated this, the Apu asked the farmers to dig under the destroyed flowers. They did, and discovered the potato for the first time. Since that day, 7 000 years ago, we grow potatoes, the first type being named Solanum Teboerosum. She lived happy and had many kids, as in a fairytale, as it gave birth to roughly 4 000 others varieties of potatoes until now …

But let’s come back to our story, shall we ? With a slight jump ahead of time … The Spanish armada conquered South America, and brought back with them or with some corsair fleet, in Europe, our dear potato. Such product met a spectacular success, and it became a crucial ingredient for some countries. John Hawkins’ pirates brought some in Ireland and the island totally embraced it. So much that when came the dreadful phytophtora, a potato-killer bacteria, Ireland overcame the hardest famine in Europe, the same way as the Andahuaylan people.

In Europe at the same time, the potato was mainly thought to be the average poor’s meal with the following criteria: affordable, filling. As a result, Vincent Van Gogh even made a painting out of this everyday scene called the “Potato Eaters”, describing the hard reality of life in the countryside.

Since these dark pictures including the famine, the potato kept on writing its story. Its numerous ways of being cooked enabled in part Peru to reach such high standards of today’s gastronomy. Sometimes wrongfully thought to be a mere side dish, potato has secured a permanent foothold in the high gastronomy. It has become the key star of many of Peruvian’s typical dishes such as papa a la huancaina, causa, papa rellena, and so many others. In the Peruvian Andes, potato (most of the time “papa huayro” or “papa amarilla”) with dry cheese is a classic snack, delightful !

It is said that about 4 000 kinds of potatoes exists on earth, and 3 000 can be found in Peru ! 30th of May has been for that matter proclaimed national potato day in Peru; and the country obtained from the ONU to declare 2008 the international year of the potato.

Finally, harvesting potato makes a living for a huge number of Andean families, and of course from the Titicaca Lake still today, thanks to the revenue it generates. Apart from giving work to many producers, the potato keeps satisfying the tastes of billions of people worldwide, precisely because it has kept blossoming through all of those years; since Apu’s miracle happened, our dear potato hasn’t stopped to show how important it is.