The State of the Potatoes

(The Warsaw Insider, May 2011)

So ubiquitous, yet there are so few choices. Why?

You come home excitedly from the supermarket with a sack of ziemniaki myte, thinking you’ve bagged a new type of spuds. Sorry to burst the happy bubble but “myte” means “washed”, as opposed to soil-coated.

“You don’t know what variety they are,” says Agata Dubas about the potato piles in supermarket chains. An ethnologist and cultural anthropologist by education, Agata has set aside a career in reporting on Russian social conditions to open a potato-themed eatery on ul. Nowy Świat 52. She is keen for her countrymen to pay closer attention to this common veggie, noting, “We eat it a lot but we don’t know much about it.”

For a staple item, you’d expect a giddy list of names to pick from. Instead, you usually get Irga or Amerykany. “It’s a lack of consumer education. Also, farmers want to grow the varieties that are easy to cultivate and easy to sell,” Agata sizes up the situation. Polish food bloggers are also lamenting the dismal range of two for every dish from boiled, roast, mashed to fries. In Warsaw, it’s no easy feat to get hold of yellow potatoes.

“In Western Poland, the yellow varieties are more popular. In the east (including the capital), white potatoes are preferred,” says Agata. However, she adds that distinction is slowly fading as Poles relocate and disseminate their dietary preferences on their new turfs.

My compendium of Polish recipes reckons that the tubers got onto Polish turf circa 18th century. Agata, however, read that it arrived a century earlier via the victorious entourage of King Jan III Sobieski, returning from the Battle of Vienna.

It was a gift for the apple of the King’s eyes, his wife Maria Kasimira. Whether the queen was amused by the biodegradable token or what pedigree it was, we know zilch. Fast forward to present day, we do know that there are now about 120 varieties registered at the Plant Breeding and Acclimatization Institute (IHAR) compared with a mere 20 odd in the early 1960’s.

At McDonald’s, traditional Polish varieties are deemed unsuitable candidates for chips. “For one thing, they are smaller,” explains Dominik Szulowski, the PR Manager of the Golden Arches. “To obtain French fries of proper length, we need more elongated tubers.” Other parameters affecting the selection include the level of starch. McD Polska uses Russet Burbank, Santana and Innovator, supplied by Farm Frites Poland, which operates in northern Poland.

While much a do is made over a blighted year for grapes, no one (except farmers) gives a fig about poor potato yields. “Every year, the harvest is different,” says Agata. And last year was bad news for most crops. The Satyna yellow potato that she likes has suffered in taste. For her baked potato bistro, Agata will be sourcing XL fist-sized spuds that have the right density to hold their shape after baking, yet a texture crumbly enough to gel well with the toppings.

“Did you know you could learn so much about the potato? It’s an interesting vegetable,” enthuses Agata. Perhaps it’s time we look at this familiar fare with fresh eyes? Enjoy the new potato season and stay tuned for a review of Agata’s potato feast.

Agata’s tips:

  • The ideal temperature to store potatoes is 4-80C. Keep them in a cool, dark, and dry spot. Potatoes like to breathe; they don’t like plastic bags.
  • After boiling potatoes, the water is rich in minerals. Use it.
  • To figure out whether a potato is waxy or floury, cut it in half. If white residuals form on the surface or the knife, it’s floury.
  • Don’t be shy about asking a vendor to half a potato so that you can see its texture and colour.
  • Always remove the eyes and greenish parts before cooking.

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