On Open Day, I took our young visitors for a tour of the field. Usually I assign the kids detective tasks, with their mission being to discover which vegetable is growing in a particular bed. They were quite good at identifying the zucchini, pumpkins, lettuce and corn. But when we reached one particular bed, silence prevailed. Not one junior detective could solve the mystery. Only after we dug deep in the moist earth did we find the shadowy habitant: beautiful, jubilant tubers that drew cries of joy from the children. Potatoes!!!
This week, in our continuing account of the secrets that lie within the earth, we shall speak not of roots but of tubers. If the roots are the foundations of the house, anchoring it to the earth, the tubers are the basement, where important things are stored for a time of need. The tuber is not a root, but rather a segment, or several segments, of the stem, used for accumulation – a type of storage for important nutrients (except water). And as such, the tubers are usually thick and round and bereft of the stem-color-green attained from chlorophyll. The base of the tuber shoots out roots, while the top of it sends stems, branches and leaves upward. This is what it looks like:
Over the past few weeks, you have been receiving fresh yummy potatoes from our winter rounds. They’re called “spring potatoes” even though they were seeded in wintertime, because they are gathered in springtime, but most of their growth happened in the cooler season. In Israel, potatoes are grown in two seasons: the autumn seeding, September-October, ripening and harvested from December to April, and those seeded from January-February, ripening and picked during the months of May and June (those that you’re currently receiving). The rest of the year here in Israel, we eat spring potatoes from cold storage.
The potato is the winter representative of the Solanum tuberosums, cousins of the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Unlike these cousins who enjoy the heat, the potato needs cool weather to yield tubers. High temperatures will make the plant grow tall and prominent, but with hardly any tubers under the earth, and sometimes none at all. A too-cold temperature will hinder the plant’s ability to grow, and it will remain small and weak, damaging the tuber’s source of energy for growth. The ideal solution: moderate, cool weather – not too cold or too hot. In short, an Israeli winter.
As the tuber is in fact a sub-soil stem, when it meets daylight, the chlorophyll begins to develop and turns the tuber green. This is not something you want to happen, which is why you make a little mound at the base of the stems, keeping the moisture in the roots to prevent the earth from cracking and to protect the tubers from the light. As the potatoes grew, we mounded them once again so we could weed them and add some expansion space. Over the past few weeks, we inserted our pitchforks into the mounds to crumble them, extracting beautiful, fresh yellow potatoes. A fresh tuber after extraction is in a comatose state due to the growth inhibiters within it. After a while, these substances subside and growth material develops, which makes the tuber bloom and sprout. In order to keep it asleep, we store it in dark, refrigerated conditions.
The potato originated in the Peruvian Andes, Chili and Bolivia, where it was grown by local Indians. They used all sorts of Solaneum’s for food. At the beginning of the 16th century when the Spanish conquered the area, they brought home some of the strange little tubers. The Spaniards weren’t too keen on eating what they coined “edible rocks,” but the conquering soldiers armed themselves with potatoes for their emergency vittles as they travelled to Spain and England.
In fact, except for the Irish, the Europeans wanted nothing to do with the strange vegetable that suffered from really bad PR: In the 16th century, a British botanist developed a cultivated species of the potato, but when he presented the potato dish to the queen in an elegant meal, it turned out the chef had cooked the leaves and tossed the tubers. The queen was mortified (off with his head!). The Scottish did not find any mention of potatoes in the Bible, thus declared it impure. Botanists discovered that it belongs to the Belladonna family (a poisonous plant whose extract was used as a sedative) and worried that it was too was toxic. The innocent potato was even blamed for causing leprosy, when it was discovered that the solanine in the tuber can create a rash. But the Irish couldn’t afford to be choosy. They were starving, and the tubers grew wonderfully well in the wintry Irish climate and earth.
The potato arrived in Germany in the 16th century, but was considered animal fodder and prisoner fare till the 18th century, when the king instructed the farmers to plant potatoes in order to save themselves from famine. He distributed tubers and instructions, and threatened to chop off the noses of those who disobeyed him. And what about France? Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a French chemist who fought in the Seven Years War, was held prisoner by the Prussians and given a steady diet of potatoes (considered animal fodder). Yet upon his return to France, he made it his business to popularize the lowly tuber.
Parmentier circulated an article in praise of the potato. For the king’s birthday, he brought him a potato bouquet, which the queen, Marie Antoinette, donned in her hair. Thus, potatoes became a desirable fashion accessory in France, but not yet a desirable food. Parmentier did not despair, and threw lavish parties where he served twenty potato dishes. Wisely, he planted a few more acres of potatoes, and set a guard to watch over them by day. As per his plan, the farmers presumed that if he took such stringent measures to guard his plot of land, it must contain something valuable. Sure enough, they crept in by night and stole the plants. In no time, potato plants were sprouting throughout French fields, becoming a status symbol and highly sought-after food in all of Europe as well. Potatoes were brought to Israel at the end of the nineteenth century to the villages established by the Baron Rothschild.
Potatoes made European history in the 19th century after the crop was badly injured due to a late blight, inflicting major damage and resulting in widespread famine. In 1845 the blight fungus immigrated to Ireland as well (probably on the deck of an American ship), spreading fast and leaving a massive trail of devastation. The small quantity of potato varieties caused an escalation from fungi to major plague, generating a total collapse of Irish potato farming and the greatest famine in Ireland’s history.
This famine sparked a massive immigration to America, where the new immigrants were quick to begin planting crops (the potato, of course) in the fertile soil of their new homeland. Thus, the charming tuber returned to the continent of its forefathers (albeit some hundred miles north…). More about the fascinating history of the potato, a tale encompassing prejudice, love, hate, abundance and destruction, can be found in this fascinating article. Today, potatoes are popular worldwide and serve as a major source of carbohydrates. Even in the Far East, where nutrition is rice-based, potatoes are used to vary the cuisine. Potato tubers supply digestible carbs, vitamins B6, C, iron and potassium. The peeling is very rich in dietary fibers, which is why it is best not to peel a potato prior to baking or cooking it.
There are thousands of potato species across the globe of varying shapes and colors: round, elongated, flat, white, yellow, pinkish-red, purple and others. From Day One at Chubeza (14 years now!), we have been growing two varieties: yellowish potatoes called “Nicola” and a red species named “Desiree.” They’re both delicious! You can find details about the various types of potatoes grown in Israel here.
Store potatoes in a cool, dark place.
As mentioned, potatoes turn green when they are exposed to light for any length of time. The green hue is the result of the chlorophyll, a natural plant pigment which is tasteless and harmless. The problem with green potatoes is that in the areas where the chlorophyll develops, an alkaloid called solanine can also develop, tasting bitter and toxic when consumed in large quantities. A greater concentration of solanine is found in the peeling or just below it, which is why older potatoes should be peeled. Cooking or steaming them reduces the solanine by 60-70% compared to a raw potato. The greening is caused by light, but also temperature, age, species and ripeness. Light potatoes turn green faster than red ones.
Potatoes keep quite well at a temperature between 8-28 degrees. A higher temperature will make the tubers sprout, then go bad. At a lower temperature (in the refrigerator, or 6 degrees and under), the starch within the potato turns to sugar, and the potatoes get a sweetish taste and burn faster when fried.
We send our condolences to our dear delivery man, Amit, on the death of his mother-in-law. May he and his family be comforted and know no further sorrow.
Wishing us all a summery-though-moderate and very pleasant week!
Alon, Bat Ami, Dror, Yochai and the Chubeza taem
WHAT’S IN THIS WEEK’S BOXES?
Monday: Parsley, melon/butternut squash/ acorn squash, lettuce, fakus, zucchini, tomatoes, green beans/carrots, onions/garlic/leeks, potatoes, New Zealand spinach/Swiss chard, eggplant/cucumbers.
Large box, in addition: Beets, coriander/nana mint, parsley root.
Wednesday: Parsley, butternut squash/ acorn squash, lettuce, fakus, zucchini, tomatoes, green or yellow beans, melon/carrots/eggplants, onions/garlic/leeks, potatoes. Small boxes only: eggplant/cucumbers/corn.
Large box, in addition: New Zealand spinach/Swiss chard, beets, coriander/nana mint, parsley root.
And there’s more! You can add to your basket a wide, delectable range of additional products from fine small producers: flour, fruits, sprouts, honey, dates, almonds, garbanzo beans, crackers, probiotic foods, dried fruits and leathers, olive oil, bakery products, apple juice, cider and jams, dates silan and healthy snacks and goat dairy too! You can learn more about each producer on the Chubeza website. On our order system there’s a detailed listing of the products and their cost, you can make an order online now!