Potatoes rule the world. They have come a long way since they made the trip across the Atlantic to Europe. They produce massive crops in cool climates and, apart from Late Blight which devastates the crop, most famously in the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, are easy and reliable to grow. But, like their close relatives the tomato, they are in the nightshade family and were not easily accepted by Europeans when they were introduced. I was reminded of this, and a strange incident to popularise potatoes in France, when I was looking at the ‘Blue Danube’ patch yesterday. ‘Blue Danube’ is a recent introduction and is one of the Sarpo range (pronounced sharpo) which are of Hungarian descent and now popular because of their resistance to blight. ‘Sarpo Axona’ is one I have grown before and it is a great potato. ‘Blue Danube’ was not given the ‘Sarpo’ prefix because the leaves have only moderate resistance to late blight but the tubers are very resistant so although the leaves may look a bit scrappy you do not lose your crop. I have wanted to grow ‘Blue Danube’ ever since I saw photos of the beautiful flowers. Yes, I wanted to grow a potato for its flowers!
But, although this sounds very weird, I am in royal company.
It is thought that the Spanish brought potatoes to Europe in around 1570. I have always been a bit unsure about this and the identity of the first potatoes to reach Europe because Christopher Columbus, on his journey to Japan, discovered the Bahamas in 1492 and here, and in adjacent places, it would be the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) and not the common potato that would have been found. The name potato is so like ‘batatas’ that it fills me with doubt. It is the same as the way that Indian and Thai cooking is so dependent on chillies – and these could not have been present in these countries before Columbus sailed – so what did they use before then?
Anyway, back to the potato. Antoine-Augustin de Parmentier (1737-1813), was an eminent physician who wanted to popularise the potato in France and get people to accept it and he decided the best way to do this was to get the patronage of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. According to the story, Parmentier was showing them around the gardens of Versailles and showed the royal couple some potatoes in bloom. Marie Antoinette was so taken by the pretty plant that she put some of the flowers in her hair and the the king put some in his buttonhole. Of course that started a fashion at court and although it is hardly the start of the French fries revolution it did familiarise the population with the potato. It then became established as a popular food and helped the French avoid starvation when cereal harvests failed.
Of course the potato is for ever linked with the Irish and it is thought that it reached Ireland through the town of Youghal, Co. Cork brought by Sir Walter Raleigh. Although it was at first a novelty in Ireland, as in France, its ease of growth and suitability to the moist, cool Irish climate soon made it a staple foodstuff and the poor soon relied on it almost to the exclusion of every other foodstuff. By the years just before the famine the average daily consumption of potatoes was around 5kg for the adult male. When late blight struck and the crop failed you can readily understand why the devastation that resulted was so severe.
Anyway, I was struck that the flowers of ‘Blue Danube’ were bigger and more attractive than the popular shrub Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin’. I even picked a bunch. The tubers are bright purple and the flesh is white and it is supposed to be a good all round variety that is specially good for roasting. Although all the Sarpo varieties get mixed reviews for taste, I think the others I have tried are very good, although they are rather dry and absorb loads of milk (or butter) when mashed. The others have large, rather odd-shaped tubers and these may be too. The ‘tops’ are large and, unlike the flowers of the ‘earlies’ which are in terminal clusters and ‘end’ the shoots, in ‘Blue Danube’ they are in leaf axils lower down the stems and the shoots keep on growing.
The flowers of the early ‘Colleen’ are smaller and rather dull but they are a sign that the plants will be ready to lift soon so we may have a crop soon.