This year, 2008, celebrates the world-wide Year of the Potato. Celebrate may not be the most appropriate term. This year should focus on better understanding the potato, the value of this product and how easy it is to prepare. Although the Portuguese took long to adopt the potato in their habits, nowadays they cannot do without this famous tubercle that has become flexible and multipurpose.
Why would FAO dedicate this year to the potato? Could the world needs lead to a suggestion of an increase in potato production and its consumption? Are we faced with the risk of great changes concerning traditional cereals, and they continue to be the structural elements of food? In Portugal a fundamental element of the people has always been the different types of bread; wheat, mixed flour, rye and corn bread. The bad farming years are always identified with the hunger periods.
The potato emerged late in Portugal, probably introduced in 1760. Only in 1798, during the reign of Queen D. Maria I was there a government decree which was an incentive to produce potatoes in the archipelago of the Azores.  This was the same year that the first great potato grower, D. Teresa de Sousa Maciel, was awarded the gold medal by the Science Academy of Lisbon. Her first son, first Viscount of Vilarinho de São Romão, gastronomist and erudite, is also a great stimulator for growing potatoes.  He published the manual “Manual Práctico da Cultura das Batatas” (Practical Manual for growing Potatoes) in 1841, the book “The art of the Cook, and the Confectioner” It is curious to note that the second book of recipes published in Portugal, 1780, by Lucas Rigaud, already includes a brief reference to the potato. “The potatoes are eaten with butter and mustard sauce, after they have been boiled in water and peeled; but the potatoes from the Islands are commonly used for different types of sweets”. Well, Lucas Rigaud had already worked in the French Court where the potato had been introduced earlier. Note the existence of sweet potato that has always been used more on the Islands than on the Continent.
Hence,the generalized consumption of potatoes seems to be confirmed during the XIX Century.  However, the potato had a strong, lasting influence on some regional cuisine which remains till today. Now it is unimaginable to cook codfish without potatoes. Glorious recipes like Codfish Gomes de Sá, Brás or even codfish cakes (Pasteis de bacalhau) are thought to be such recent recipes because the custom is so ingrained and popular. Codfish seems to never have existed without potatoes because they go together so well. There is a perfect connection which links them together.
Until the potato appeared, the Portuguese ate bread as a complement to accompany the meals.  During the reign of King D. Dinis (1279-1325), rice became an important product.  He created incentives to grow rice along the banks of the Mondego River1. However, the potato was never ever de-throned. The victim of the popularity of the potato was the chestnut.The chestnut, which today is considered merely as a winter attraction, is an extremely important food element in the inland regions. Soups and so many complete soups, meaning they substituted whole meals, were thickened with a chestnut base. Flour made from chestnuts was also made and a kind of bread, called falacha was also made from flour derived from chestnuts. The name falacha is still used in some fairs. Nowadays the chestnut is on a pedestal in the French sweet making with their famous “Marron Glacés”. Amongst us there are really new recipes emerging. The false attempt to recreate old recipes is merely media opportunism because in olden times there was no cook treatise. Chestnuts were used to thicken soups, a purée would be made and during times of crisis, flour was made to make a kind of bread. There were the baked or boiled chestnuts which are still popular today.
But let us go back to the potatoes. As a result of the Tordesilhas Treaty2 potatoes were brought naturally first to Spain and then to Portugal.  The way the world was divided made the Spanish “inherit” the colonies where potatoes were already being grown. They colonized what is known today as Peru, Ecuador, Chile and the Argentine. And with all these potatoes, they set out to immediately create recipes that became popular “Tortilla” or the simplicity of “Batata Brava”. The English claim that they were the first to introduce the potato in Europe after a trip by the discoverer, Sir Francis Drake, who introduced it to Queen Elizabeth! In France it was banned and only after the efforts of Parmentries, a pharmacist, working for the Kings Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who initially used the potato plant as a decorative element and only later were convinced that the potato would help France overcome hunger problems. The reputation of the potato went through several vicissitudes; some claimed it caused leprosy, others that it was pure poison. Some even referred to it as the plant of the Devil because it was never mentioned in the Bible. The Encyclopedia Britannic, in its first edition of 1708-1771, considered the potato a demoralizing food.
The potato moved on slowly and today it is the fourth most cultivated food in the world, after rice, wheat and corn. China is the biggest rice producer. It has been poetically classified as “heartwarming, rocking chair, grandmother´s lap, mother´s love, father´s presence… “according to the Brazilian Carioca journalist Danusia Barbara.
We receive information from Peru that there are hundreds of different types of potato and well-known chefs there have worked and created extraordinary recipes. It is said that potatoes are de-hydrated through dry cold 4,000 meters above. Of course this is a simple conservation method and in order to re-use them, they merely have to be soaked in water.
Recently I participated in a lunch sponsored by the Ambassador of Peru, where the potato starters, meat dishes, garnishes, sauces and desserts were served at a buffet. The flexibility and versatility of the potato was amazing. To me, the biggest surprise were the desserts; Crema Asada de Papas a la Moda de Abancay” (potatoes) and “Trufas de Paps com se Hacen en Ancash” (truffles) the latter was the same as any other chocolate truffle on the outside. As a filling there was such a light chocolate like cream that nobody would ever imagine that it had been made out of potatoes. Here we have the potato at its best! As a reminder, potatoes in Peru: Papas.
Great chefs like Joel Robuchon created a new cook treatise and the potato went back to its privileged place. He dedicated a book to potatoes called “Le Meillure, et le Plus Simple de la Pomme de Terre”, where he presents one hundred recipes (including his famous purée), the history of how the potato came to Europe, as well as other useful information.
Amongst us the potato comes up in popular sayings and slang.
Go plant potatoes
Hot potato
Bite the potato
On the potato
Bon Apetit!
© Virgilio Gomes
Photo: ©Adriana Freire

1-The biggest river born in Portugal, central region (back to the main text)
2-Treaty between Portugal and Spain, 1494, dividing the world in two parts for new discoveries (back to the main text)