FOOD FUN: Heirloom Potatoes | The Nibble Webzine Of Food Adventures - The Nibble Webzine Of Food Adventures FOOD FUN: Heirloom Potatoes | The Nibble Webzine Of Food Adventures
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FOOD FUN: Heirloom Potatoes

Exotic looking, but they’re just potatoes!
Photo courtesy Costanera Cocina Peruana.

Potatoes originated in the Andes Mountains of Peru, where more than 2,000 varieties still grow wild (there are more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes worldwide). They were first domesticated more than 6,000 years ago.

Don’t you wish you could buy some of these beauties, instead of the plain potatoes grown for the mass market?

If you look closely, you’ll see versions that look similar to what we can buy today. What we can buy is based on which varieties:

  • Produce the highest yields
  • Are the hardiest
  • Appeal most to consumers (much as we’d love them, many people don’t want to buy those curled or knobby potatoes)

    Wild potatoes are indigenous to the Andes Mountains in Peru, and were cultivated by the Incas.

    The name is said to originate from the Spanish patata, a combination of batata, the sweet potato, and papa, a word for potato from the Inca language, Quechua.
    The Spanish conquered Peru around 1530 and brought potatoes back to Spain. News traveled fast (or what passed as “fast” in the centuries prior to the telegraph), and potatoes reached the rest of Western Europe relatively quickly.

    However, not everyone was enamored of the potato (or the tomato). They were feared at first, accused of causing leprosy and being poisonous. They were classified as a relative of deadly nightshade, because both contain toxic compounds known as glycoalkaloids, though the levels in domestic potatoes and tomatoes fall far short of being harmful to people.

    Slowly, more countries realized the power of the potato. It could grow in any climate. It thrived in Ireland, so much so that when hit by a potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, three years in a row, more than a million people died of starvation and disease.

    Potatoes were introduced to America in the 18th century. They were first planted in Idaho in 1836; the state now grows 25% of the nation’s potatoes.

    Idahoan Luther Burbank developed the Russet Burbank potato in 1872, a more disease-resistant version of the Irish russet potato (there have been additional russet developments since).

    And the rest is history—even if modern history is not as colorful as the original created by nature.


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