CULTURE

For the nerves and appetite, have a potato

A group of friends and I were discussing current affairs, and the conversation became heated. Violence on the playing fields, political rows, war in our backyard, rising fanaticism of all kinds lead to tension and depression. A group of friends provides happiness, but it can also turn into an arena which raises our blood pressure, lowers our immunity and provokes heavy dyspepsia. Disagreement supposedly gives color to the world, and personally I would not like to live in a society where everything was homogenous. It would be like eating the same thing every day. Yet, when the time to sit down all together around the table comes, the passions die down. Food unites: You can see the palpitations slowing and the tight lips relaxing. Our table was full of delights, but all the hands stretched out first to the two little plates with the freshly fried French fries. It seems that the psychologists are right when they claim that there are foods which calm and soothe us not so much for their taste but because they remind us of the security and protection of a maternal embrace. Maybe the starch contains a relaxant. The same is true for pasta and rice. I don’t know how they satisfied their psychological needs in the old days (maybe with gruel made from wheat), because the potato is new to the Old World. The plant Solanum tuberosum is native to the highlands of Mexico, Peru, Chile and Colombia, areas where the Incas and the Aztecs lived. Not only did they include potatoes in their daily diet, but they also had their own way of drying them. The word batata or patata is native Indian, and this is the word they used for the sweet potato. This word came to be most widely used in Europe, however, to mean the «earth apple,» a word which both in the French (pomme de terre) and Greek is somewhat embarrassing. The Italians immediately identified it with truffles, calling it the tartufola, i.e. «little truffle.» This word was corrupted in German to kartufola and in Russian to kartoska. Francisco Pizarro discovered the potato among the Incas of Peru, and ascertained that it was one of their basic foodstuffs. He brought it to Europe in 1534, but cultivation of the plant remained on an experimental level for many years. Thirty years later, a Briton «discovered» the potato on the coasts of the southern states of America, certainly brought over from Mexico, and took it to England. From there, it passed to Ireland, a country whose fate has been significantly affected by its harvests. Food for the poor We can only really talk of the spread of the potato throughout Europe after 1800. Until then, there was only limited cultivation, most likely experimental. Many foresaw the value of this tuber plant as a food for the poor, and this is indeed what it became. The terrible harvests of the mid-18th century led hundreds and thousands of Irish to migrate to the United States of America, where immigrants from all over the world were then gathering, dreaming of a better life in the boundless Promised Land. In the years that followed the destruction of the harvest, 44 percent of the immigrants who entered the USA were Irish. The potato was introduced to Greece by the country’s first governor, Capodistrias, and was initially grown on a small, experimental scale in Tiryns. It was only systematically cultivated in large fields after the 1880s. Nutritionally, the potato with its starch content covers the gap between cereals and vegetables. Its cultivation is relatively easy with a good yield, its nutritional value is undoubted, while its taste immediately creates a sense of familiarity. Its main advantage, however, is that it goes with everything, from meat and fish to vegetables and pulses. In times of want, the potato often functions as the basis of a meal, to which little cuts of meat or fish are added to give flavor to the soft, white flesh. On other occasions, the reverse also takes place. The main thing is to have fresh, well-preserved and tasty potatoes, without eyes or green bits. Store them somewhere spacious, without damp or light. A basket or a wooden box on the balcony, covered with a black cloth, is all you need. There is no point in talking about potato strains anymore, as they have now all been genetically altered. Friends from places that were once famed for their tasty potatoes tell me that «they’re all the same now.» It’s perhaps worth pointing out that potatoes grown in highland areas are the tastiest. There is nothing to compete with the long, yellow potatoes from Nevrokopi near Drama, which are not available in Athens. I shall never forget my maternal grandmother, Akrivoula Kourti, from the village of Kavalos in Lefkada: She would cook wonderful potatoes from the family’s own produce, frying them on a wood fire in the summer evenings, using oil made from her own olives, and serving them with crushed salt. Poetic potatoes Ingredients: 1 kilo small round potatoes enough oil to fry the potatoes in a saucepan 2 cups sliced tomatoes without the seeds 4 tablespoons olive oil 2-3 cloves garlic, crushed salt and freshly ground pepper 3 tablespoons finely sliced smoked bacon, cooked 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley 2/3 cup Gruyere cheese, roughly grated Clean and quarter the potatoes. Put them in a strainer and sprinkle a little salt over them. Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the potatoes, lower the heat to the lowest temperature, and cover the pan. When it almost stops boiling, remove the lid and raise the heat to full again. Without using a spoon, shake the pan so that the potatoes do not stick. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan on another burner and add the sliced tomatoes. Stir them so they cook a little and their liquid evaporates. Add the bacon, garlic and parsley. When the potatoes are a crisp golden color, remove them with a slotted spoon and add them to the pan with the tomatoes. Shake in lots of black pepper and stir over the heat for about 2 minutes. Sprinkle the potatoes with the cheese before serving.