Celebrating 2008, the Year of the Potato
Looking from a Western perspective (perhaps over a plate of fries), the United Nations declaration that 2008 will be the Year of the Potato, might be incorrectly perceived to be yet another example of officialdom gone nuts. The humble, homely potato is often seen as an object of derision in the West, in centuries past as a ‘food for the poor’, and today in phrases such as ‘potato head’ or ‘couch potato’. And yet this unbelievably hardy, flexible, nutritious, low-fat food is the most consumed vegetable in the World, with over 6,000 different ‘cultivated types’ and 213 million tonnes grown to eat each year.
In South America, the potato has been a resident feature for over 13,000 years when scientists believe wild varieties grew on the Chilean coast. No later than 7,000 years ago, Andean peoples farmed potatoes possibly on the northern Bolivian altiplano between lakes Titicaca and Poopó. Like the people living on this windswept land, some 12,000 feet above sea level, the potato had to be extraordinarily hardy and tenacious – enduring poor soil, radical temperature swings and frosts at any time of the year. Where most plants withered, the potato thrived.
In the early 16th Century, the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe, initially as a botanic curiosity (solanum tuberosum). Alas, first impressions were typically negative, with the Europeans believing the potato to be poisonous or evil since it also belongs to the ‘nightshade’ family. Nevertheless, its innate goodness eventually won them over and potato cultivation became the ‘bread’ of Europe’s industrial revolution. In fact, there are claims that the potato does more than fill the stomach – some say rheumatism can be prevented if you carry a potato in your pocket, facial blemishes may be removed by washing your face daily with cool potato juice and a sore throat can even be relieved by putting a slice of baked potato in a stocking and tying it around your throat.
Today, as nominee government, Peru is keen to raise the profile of this magical foodstuff. Working with the UN they want to focus world attention on the role that the potato can play in providing food security and eradicating poverty in even the harshest conditions on the planet.
To find out more, visit the aptly named International Potato Centre at www.cipotato.org.