Potatoes







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There are about 500 commercially produced potato varieties cultivated in the world today, but the one type available in Sorano is surprisingly uninteresting– a pale yellow, rather soggy (the industry classifications being soggy, waxy, dry and mealy) cultivar that has commonly been grown in Europe, as opposed to the farinaceous russet baking type more prevalent in the New World.  Decent for pan-frying, I never thought that that the local potatoes made particularly good gnocchi, which is one of my favorite dishes.  I always imagined that russet potatoes would make lighter dumplings, so when friends asked that I bring peanuts from America, hoping to cultivate them in Sorano, I also brought along some relatively new potato seeds.  Bright yellow-fleshed, starchier, and much more flavorful, the Yukon Gold potato was developed in Canada, and first released in 1980.   The peanuts were not particularly successful, but the potatoes were much esteemed. 


Unfortunately, by the time I got around to cultivating my own vegetable garden, my old friends had either become too infirm to maintain theirs or had passed away, so I wasn’t able to recover any of the potatoes, and had to bring some new seeds.  I have no qualms about importing American potatoes to Italy, considering that they were first discovered and cultivated in the South American Andes mountains perhaps as much as 7,000 years ago, and were originally brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. 


Potatoes belong to the Solanaceae family of flowering plants that also includes the tomato, eggplant, and belladonna- the deadly nightshade.  Indigenous to Southern Europe, belladonna is a weed in my garden, and I have difficulty controlling it.  The name, meaning “beautiful woman” in Italian, was given to the plant because eye drops prepared from the berries had the effect of dilating the pupils, thought to make women in ancient Rome more mysterious and enticing.   Belladonna was also very well known for its narcotic and poisonous properties.  Apparently only two or three of the sweet black berries can be deadly.  The genus of the plant is Atropa, derived from the Greek goddess Atropos, one of the three Fates, who, with her scissors, cuts the thread of human life.  Atropos in the Roman pantheon was known as Morta, meaning “dead” in both latin and Italian. 


So, when the potato was first introduced in Europe, with its flowers, berries and leaves resembling nightshade, it was regarded with great suspicion.  It is said that Sir Walter Raleigh, one of the first to grow potatoes at his garden in Ireland, discovered for himself that, indeed, the berries and leaves were toxic, and so demanded that the plants be dug up and discarded.  The French until practically 1800 thought that the plant spread leprosy.  The Puritans refused to accept the plant because it is not mentioned in the Bible.  For as much as 200 years, the potato was thought of as just a botanical curiosity, and was grown for its attractive flowers.  Eventually the tubers were found to be highly nutritious and initially began to be used as animal fodder and to feed prisoners. 


In other parts of Europe potatoes began to be appreciated, and relied upon as an essential foodstuff, but Tuscans were resistant to its introduction.  The last years of the Medici family rule in Florence were a period of significant economic and agricultural decline.  By the time the German Lorena family assumed control of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in the 1730s, famine and disease had reduced the population around Sorano dramatically.   The director of the botanical garden in Florence was impressed with the potato plant’s high yield of nourishing tubers and suggested that priests experiment with planting potatoes in their parish gardens, so that farmers would follow their examples and begin to cultivate them.  At the same time German potato dumplings were becoming a popular new dish in Florentine society, and the recipe for gnocchi alla tedesca- German gnocchi- was included in a 1785 recipe collection, the Oniatologia.   As described in a 13th century recipe book, gnocchi had previously been made with sheep cheese, flour and egg yolk, but potatoes, even though they were probably still not widely cultivated throughout Tuscany until the middle of the 19th century, did eventually become the primary ingredient.   Gnocchi alle patate is now considered to be one of Italy’s most traditional and celebrated dishes.


My initial attempts at growing potatoes in the garden were quite frustrating.  The first year wild boars were able simply to flounce up the stairs of the garden and massacre my potato bed, and the bluebells, iris, and other tasty flowering bulbs I had planted about.   The next year it was the turn of a large porcupine that scrabbled under the then gated entrance to the garden.  European porcupines can grow to be as big as 65 pounds, and if this one wasn’t quite that big then I’m sure it was by the time it was done gobbling most of my potatoes, zucchini and pumpkins. 


I began to understand why Elidio had previously edged his vegetable patch with broken panes of glass, but, as my crop was almost entirely decimated, I decided to take more drastic action.  Luigino the potter showed me how to make a very effective trap out of a discarded brake cable from one of my bicycles.  The only problem is that the European porcupine has been protected in Italy since 1974, so all I can say is that the beast was mysteriously felled, either by a tufa boulder that came hurtling from the cliff above the garden or perhaps in battle with my erstwhile garden companion- a three-legged cat.  (Gattazoppa -“lame cat” in English- has, in addition, many times proven her great worth by nabbing the pesky moles that eat my fennel and artichokes, and poisonous vipers.)  Alan Davidson wrote in The Oxford Companion to Food that there is little evidence that porcupines are or have been eaten, “save by gypsies and rural people who have no better.”   I can say that the meat of the porcupine, stuffed on my potatoes, is quite sweet and delicious, particularly when it is prepared with the recipe for Ivana’s “buglione” stew (to be revealed later.)