The potato is native to the Peruvian and Colombian Andes and Chile. There are still many wild varieties, especially around Lake Titicaca. It was around that area that the potato was domesticated between around 7,000 and 10,000BC.
The potato crossed the Atlantic in several ways.
It was discovered in Peru by Pizarro during the Spanish conquest, when the Spaniards noted that the potato was a staple food of the Incas. He took it to Spain where, from 1534, it began to establish itself, and in Italy.
An English captain, John Hawkins, discovered it in Columbia and took it to Ireland in 1565.
Another English man, Francis Drake, took it from Virginia to England a decade later.
However, nobody wanted it as it had a reputation for making people crazy (because of the solanine)!
Nevertheless, it gradually started to be cultivated in England, Germany, and the rest of Northern Europe. In France, it was shunned until the 18th century. It took a lot of famines and the famous determination of Auguste Parmentier, an agronomist during the reign of Louis XVI, for the potato to finally become a staple vegetable.
The potato then won over southern Europe, northern Africa, Australia, India, China, and Japan (in the 19th century in the latter two countries). France is the third leading European producer.
It is a major commodity, as a vegetable and processed product (chips, flakes, etc.), and is also used to produce alcohol (vodka), starch, and biscuits.
Firm to the touch, smooth skin with a homogenous color, no germs, eyes, spots, or green tinges.
The green tinges come from the development of solanine, a toxic substance that develops very rapidly in the light and makes the potato bitter and unpalatable. When absorbed in large quantities, solanine can be very toxic.
Unwashed potatoes are naturally protected from light by the earth that is still attached to them.
Raw: sold individually, packed in nets, wooden trays, etc.
Pre-cooked: sliced, diced, baby potatoes, whole, vacuum-packed.
Processed and frozen: fries, croquettes, pommes noisettes, Duchess potatoes, gratin, mashed.
Dehydrated: in flakes, sliced, mashed, plain or with milk.
Powder (starch) and in flour.
Raw, as chips.
Potatoes are only ever eaten cooked, after being washed, and often peeled. Peeling is not necessary for small new potatoes, nor for large potatoes cooked in foil, barbequed, or potatoes boiled in their skins for inclusion in a salad.
Potatoes can be used in many ways, whether whole or sliced. They go well with everything:meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, and can be mixed with other vegetables.
They are boiled or steamed, fried or roasted, baked, or deep-fried. They can be used to make gratin, mash, stew, soups, or salads. They are mixed with onions, cream, herbs, bacon, and are included in stews and omelets, etc.
Always stored in the dark, in a ventilated and dry place, between 8–10 °C.
Storing potatoes in the refrigerator softens them and changes their flavor.
A starchy tuber, the potato has a special place in the nutritional classification of vegetables.
It is quite rich in carbohydrates: 16–20%, depending on its maturity.
Naturally low in calories because it does not contain fat, potatoes also contain protein, fiber, minerals, some B vitamins and a little vitamin C. This gradually disappears during storage and when cooked.
The nutritional value of potatoes changes dramatically when they are cooked in fat, and especially when fried. An exchange happens: water escapes while lipids penetrate the flesh. The more thinly sliced the potatoes are, the more intense this exchange, and so the more fat they absorb.
Potatoes are on the market all year round, thanks to the many varieties which are grown throughout all seasons, but in no small part due to it being stored with chemical inhibitors and germicides or after irradiation, processes that neutralize germination.
New or early potatoes
They are harvested before being fully mature. This name can be used from the beginning of harvest (April, May) until 31 July, and out of season for imported potatoes.
In France, the most famous are the:
. Noirmoutier potatoes (5 different varieties, including the most famous, La Bonnotte)
. Potatoes from the Ile de Ré (PDO)
. Early Roussillon potatoes (PDO)
They are harvested from May through July.
Baby potatoes are small main crop potatoes with a diameter of 28–40 mm. They are found throughout the year.
The most common varieties:
. Belle de Fontenay: oval and elongated, yellow. March through June (Label Rouge).
. BF 15: oval and elongated, dark yellow. July through March.
. Charlotte: oblong, yellow, very regular shape. All year round.
. Francine: elongated and regular shape, red. September through April.
. Manon (good for fries): oval, pale yellow. August through May (Label Rouge).
. Nicolas: oblong and yellow. All year round.
. Pompadour: elongated and yellow (PGI). September through May.
. Ratte: elongated, irregularly shaped, yellow. August through May. La Ratte du Touquet, grown in the north of France, is a trademark.
. Roseval: Oblong and red. All year round.
. Rosine: Elongated, regular-shape, and red. August through May.
Main crop potato
Also called long-life potatoes. All are oblong, with a fairly regular shape. Their flesh disintegrates easily.
The most common varieties:
. Agria: yellow flesh, from September through May.
. Bintje: September through May.
. Estima: September through April.
. Mona Lisa: August through March. This is one of the best.
. Merville potato: Bintje variety grown in the north of France, protected by a PGI.
. Samba: August through May. Quite rare, it is slightly coppery.
. Urgenta: August through October, also quite rare, red.
In Europe, the Patatas de Prades, a Kennebec variety, is cultivated in Catalonia (Spain) and has a PGI.
Benefitting from a PDO, the Lapin Puikula, cultivated in Lapland (Finland), is floury, Patata di Bologna (Province of Bologna, Italy), Jersey Royal Potatoes, a new potato grown on the island of Jersey (UK).