Thursday, 15 December 2016

Potatoes!

First of all, one for the school-child humour corner. It's amazing what you get as extras when you buy German potatoes!


These extra large potatoes (in Britain we'd call them 'baking potatoes') are actually quite hard to get hold of. I don't know if the Kartoffelhaus restaurant chain buy them all up or something, but the potatoes in German supermarkets are usually half the size (and the 'dick' are rarely all that 'dick').

German potatoes are more commonly sold in three varieties:
  • festkochend ('waxy' - in Britain these are like Jersey Royal potatoes)
  • vorwiegend festkochend ('predominantly waxy') 
  • mehlig kochend ('floury')
This can be confusing to a Brit, who are more likely to buy by variety. The packaging does usually have the potato variety printed on it (the ones above are 'Soraya'), but don't waste your time looking for maris piper for your chips, as I have yet to find any in Germany.

Basically, if you are wanting boiled potatoes or are making Kartoffelsalat then go with 'festkochend'. If on the other hand you want mashed potatoes or potato dumplings (gnocchi), then go for 'mehlig'. Anything else (including chips and baked potatoes) and 'vorwiegend' will work.

Until recently I hadn't noticed that these three types of potato are colour coded. The packaging for 'festkochend' always has a green label, 'vorwiegend festkochend' has a red label, and 'mehlig kochend' potatoes have a blue-labelled bag.

Potatoes are also often labelled by their season, so 'früh' are early season, 'new' potatoes that are harvested from May to early June. 'Mittelfrüh' start appearing in the shops around the middle of August and go on to the end of September. 'Späte Kartoffeln' are dug up between mid-September and the end of November.

Potatoes form an important role in German cooking, but it was not always so. When potatoes first made their way back along the trade routes from the Americas to Europe they were viewed with suspicion. They are after all part of the Solanaceae family of plants, which includes such poisonous plants as deadly nightshade and mandrake. For a long time potatoes were only grown in Europe as ornamental plants or curiosities. 

In the eighteenth century the French only fed the potato tubers to pigs, and in Britain the potato plant was only grown for its flowers, but over in Prussia the rather more enlightened King Friedrich II recognised their worth as an important source of nutrition. The Brandenburg part of Prussia is, as anyone who lives there today knows (hi!), very flat and the soil is poor for growing crops. Where the soil is rich in nutrients, it is because they are often inundated, e.g. in the floodplains of the river Oder. Potatoes thrive in this kind of environment, because they have deep, anchored roots that don't get washed away, nor do they have a crop above ground un-sheltered from the winds that blow down from the Baltic.

Friedrich II encouraged his peasantry to grow potatoes as a crop, the better to get them fit for serving in his army, which had major expansionist ideas. Legend has it that Old Fritz set soldiers to protect the fields where his experimental potato crops were growing in the Oderland. This aroused the curiosity of the locals, who thought the crops must be extremely valuable if the King was guarding them in this way, and so it came to pass that potatoes mysteriously began appearing in the fields of nearby farmers. More historically factual is that from 1746 onward Friedrich II issued 15 'Kartoffelbefehle' or 'potato edicts' that ordered all his subjects to plant potatoes wherever they had the space to grow them. Later edicts gave instructions on suitable soils for them, tillage, how to plant them, and so on.

To this day, visitors to Friedrich II's grave by Sanssoucci Palace in Potsdam, and to such places as his statue in front of the home of his youth in Rheinsberg, leave behind a potato in thankful memory. It is noted though that amongst the documents of his royal household there has never been found a recipe for a single potato dish or inclusion of potatoes on a menu.