2000s Archive

Can You Dig It?

Originally Published July 2001
A potato revolution has taken root. We visit a kitchen garden to find the flavors of the earth.

It’s July, and I have just dug Bliss’s Triumph. What beauties. I don’t think there is a potato that has a rosier, more gorgeous skin. Plus the aroma of perfectly cooked, hot, steaming Bliss’s Triumph reminds me of freshly baked bread just yearning for a little dab of country butter. But it’s the old-fashioned flavor that delights the most. Spritz the potatoes with a few drops of white wine, and there you have it: food for the gods.

Although farmers markets are offering more and more heirlooms nowadays, the best way to get to know potatoes of real character like these is to grow them yourself. I maintain 52 varieties in my large kitchen garden, but I also know people who raise potatoes in tubs on their apartment balconies, so you don’t have to own a field to enjoy homegrown spuds. In Pennsylvania, I can plant early in March and continue at intervals well into April. This spreads the crop out over a long harvest season, as potatoes are generally grouped into three categories: early, midseason, and late. The early ones—such as the Victorian-era heirlooms Early Rose, Myatt’s Ashleaf, and the delicious French fingerling called La Ratte d’Ardèche—all come on during the early summer. At that point, I let my friends know that a dig is imminent so that we can set out the freshly dug and cooked bounty for a serious tasting. It is especially satisfying to see the convincing nods of appreciation from newcomers who have suddenly discovered that potatoes actually have as many different subtle flavors as wine. Those differences are undoubtedly accounted for by soil types, since soil is a living thing—or chock-full of living things—and the soil they grow in is as important to potatoes as yeast is to bread.

So how do we describe potato flavors and figure out which ones are worth a trial in the kitchen garden? Well, some of the best-tasting potatoes were bred almost 100 years ago. Many of the finest among them are still with us, never improved upon from a culinary standpoint. Purple-blotched Catriona (1920) always tastes freshly dug and has a walnutlike flavor that pushes it right over the top. And I think that what I’ve learned from Catriona is that potato flavors are best equated with those of nuts or breads. A subtle hazelnut taste, for example, is a hallmark of Arran Victory (1918), a violet-skinned potato from the Isle of Arran, off the coast of Scotland. It ranks as one of the great connoisseur’s potatoes of the 20th century.

I don’t find this nuttiness or “freshly baked bread” flavor in the boiling potatoes, especially the waxy ones with yellow flesh. I suppose that is why they end up as salad potatoes, taking on the flavors around them while absorbing little of the dressing. La Ratte d’Ardèche is one such potato; another excellent waxy potato is Roseval (1950), a French variety with smooth cranberry-red skin and lemon-yellow flesh. It resembles a large beach pebble and is a thoroughly handsome addition to salads.

Potatoes come in all the same natural colors of the other members of the genusSolanumto which they are botanically related (eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes, for example). Generally, this means red, purple and blue (the color varies greatly due to soil), yellow, orange, pink, and white. The natives of the high Andes, where potatoes originated, enjoy thousands of different varieties and colors. They shrug off the potatoes we grow in North America and Europe as rather bland and uninteresting, yet to us many of their potatoes taste somewhat bitter or sharp. This is because potatoes with a lot of pigments in the skin or flesh carry different genetic material inherited from wild potatoes, which rely on their bad taste to fend off animals. This natural defense system is still present in the plant itself and is toxic to humans and many animals. It is also found in potatoes that turn green (a sign that they’ve been improperly exposed to light), so never buy potatoes with green spots on their skin.

Although the flesh of some potatoes is colored, very few other than the whites and yellows have been bred for solid shades. All-Red (a new variety, introduced about 1984), which cooks up a pale rose, comes close, but as a rule colored potatoes are veined, or the color is arranged in rings under the skin. I mention these features because of the recent rage for blue potatoes, which were originally considered poverty food and never, ever eaten by connoisseurs.

So, do the various colored potatoes taste any different from the white or yellow ones? To find out, I started planting old classics, among them Négresse, a variety introduced to France from Peru around 1815 and sometimes called Truffe de Chine (Chinese truffle). The analogy to truffles is apt. Eyes closed, it tastes like a truffle, and a little walnut or hazelnut oil will bring out the rich, earthy nuttiness. But eyes open, it is blue, and oil only makes it bluer—sky blue, in fact.

Storage has a great effect on both the texture and flavor of potatoes. Their starch content is determined by variety and growing conditions, but no matter what, they will lose moisture the longer they are stored. I keep mine in brown paper bags at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. They remain dormant that way and last for months. Storage can ruin delicate flavors or improve bland ones—it’s a bit like aging wine, and a good potato grower knows this. An elegant potato like Duke of York (1891) can actually mellow in storage and develop a “new potato” flavor and texture over the course of a few months. But to my mind, a potato brought out of storage cannot compare to a new potato—a small one, not fully mature, that’s been dug while the plant still has greens attached. Because the water content of new potatoes is much higher than their starch content, they have a certain out-of-the-ground crispness even when cooked, and a slightly sweet, almost almondlike flavor—distinctive, yet different from one variety to another. What we often get in supermarkets is the opposite: poorly stored potatoes that taste like rotten cardboard.

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