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Not content with being the world’s fourth biggest food crop, only trailing in behind rice, wheat and maize (corn), having the UN call it a “hidden treasure” and officially declare 2008 as the International Year of the Potato, the humble spud is of course responsible for loads and loads of delicious food!
Originally native to South America, most probably of southern Peruvian descent, the potato wasn’t introduced into Europe until the mid 16th century where it soon became an important part of the diet. There are even those who claim that chips were invented in Belgium by 1680 (although it wasn’t until the 1860s that Britain had its first chip shops!) Nowadays the majority of the world’s potatoes are grown in Asia, with China being the largest producer. Neither Great Britain nor Ireland are amongst the top ten potato growers.
Potatoes are renowned for their carbohydrate content but also contain a number of important vitamins, minerals and even protein… although the way they are cooked will obviously impact on their nutrient value! A portion can contain more vitamin C than an apple and potatoes provide up to 15% of our nation’s vitamin C intake.
Many countries claim their own national potato dishes such as sour and spicy shredded potato (China), gnocchi (Italy), potato dumplings (Poland), Dauphinoise (France) and deep fried Mars bars and chips (Scotland).
A British Potato Council survey of 2,000 British adults discovered that roast potatoes were their number one choice despite the fact that 1 in 4 of every British potato is made into chips! In Britain we apparently each eat an average of 94kg of potatoes each every year, up from 90kg in 1960, but well short of the estimated 120kg during the Second World War.
The glorious history of the potato is not unfortunately entirely blight-free. Between 1845 and 1855 approximately a million people died of hunger in Ireland and another two million emigrated as a consequence of the repeated destruction of the potato crop by fungus Phytophthora infestans, combined with the poor economic and humanitarian policies of the ruling English parliament. Nearly 12% of Ireland’s population was killed making this period proportionally more destructive of human life than any modern-day famine. Thankfully, nowadays organic and chemical controls along with disease-resistant varieties significantly reduce the risk of crop failure!
Recipe: Spicy Potato Wedges