For those of you under clear skies this past evening you would have witnessed the Full Beaver Moon. This name comes from the Algonquin tribes and is still used in the Farmers Almanac. It is referred to as the Beaver Moon because this was the time to set beaver traps before the swamps froze, to ensure a supply of winter furs. All I saw last night however was the cold grey of late fall rain clouds with a hint of snow this morning.
This makes me think one thing – Potatoes and their starchy, fulfilling goodness. They’re so versatile, whether baked on their own or mixed with other ingredients the possibilities are endless. I love them baked, mashed, scalloped, in gratin or in soup.
But where did this humble root vegetable come from? (No it’s not from Ireland) It’s South American originating in Peru and brought over to Europe through Spain and their conquest of South America in the 16th century. Potatoes had three advantages over other crops in Europe: its low spoilage rate, its bulk (easily satisfying hunger), and its cheapness. These three traits made it popular in the 19th century and even credited it with underpinning the Industrial Revolution in Britain.
Irish expansion of potato cultivation was largely due to its cheap cost and high yield – an acre of potatoes and the milk of one cow was enough to feed a whole Irish family a monotonous but nutritionally adequate diet. The lumper potato that was commonly grown was high yielding but poorly resistant to blight. Thus, the Irish Potato Famine that occurred from 1845-49 was a result of heavy dependence on this genetically weak potato that succumbed to blight.
In Canada potatoes as cash crops are grown in all provinces, PEI being the most major producer. We are also home one of the top potato research institutes in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The Canadian Potato Research Center was established in 1912 and although it’s focus has shifted throughout the years it has been responsible for developing disease resistant varieties of potatoes in the past.
So what’s the secret to the best potato dishes? Picking the right potato. Now I don’t mean the shape or colour of the potato, I mean choosing the potato with the proper starch content. The higher the starch content of the potato, the fluffier the potato is when cooked. Think airy and creamy mashed potatoes or fluffy baked russet potatoes. These potatoes can hold a lot of water and tend to fall apart when cooked. Medium starch potatoes are sort of an all purpose potato, they’re a little denser and will hold their shape better. Yukon gold potatoes would be a good example of a medium starch potato. Low starch potatoes, often referred to as waxy potatoes are the perfect potato to hold their shape in salad dishes. Examples of low starch potatoes are french fingerlings and purple Peruvian varietals.
My favorite potato dish is röschti, a Swiss dish my Grandpa introduced me to. It was breakfast EVERY morning he would tell us of his childhood on a farm in the canton of Bern (which is where the dish originated). It is a very simple dish consisting of grated potato, either cooked or raw, fried in butter and shaped into a patty. You can make it with pretty much any potato but I would suggest one with a medium starch content such as a yukon gold or red potato. So simple and so delicious, the most important prerequisites to my favorite kitchen staples. Now you must excuse me while I go prepare some röschti for myself.