Continuing my weekly look at a store cupboard essential, a true hero of the kitchen, this week we turn our eyes (pun intended) to the potato.
The potato is a relative newcomer to the everyday western diet. It arrived in Europe from the New World sometime in the 16th century (1536, to be exact), at about the same time as tobacco. I think that there is a wonderful irony that the two items that have caused the most significant amount of damage to the health of those of us in the developed world – chips (by which I mean French fries, which are, of course, Belgian) and tobacco – both arrived at the same time from the Americas.
This starchy, tuberous crop quickly became popular throughout Europe and went some way to replacing bread as the staple, especially in Ireland, a reliance they discovered to their cost in 1845 when blight wiped out the vast majority of the crop leading to huge famine and, ultimately, a mass exodus to the United States.
Although most people would struggle to name ten, there are over 5,000 varieties of potato, most of which are native to the Andean region of South America. There are probably almost as many ways to prepare and eat the vegetable as well, which is what makes them ideal for keeping in the store cupboard.
There are few foods as comforting as the potato, especially when paired with butter, cream or cheese. There is something so warming and satisfying about this particular carbohydrate that can’t quite be matched by pasta or rice.
They are also wonderfully seasonal. There are few foods as evocative of the differing seasons than the different types of potato. Waxy new potatoes, gently boiled and drizzled with olive oil, a little lemon juice and some finely chopped parsley is a great accompaniment to a barbecued or grilled food. Cool autumn nights can be warmed by fish pie or a heaving plate of mashed potato with sausages and sticky, rich onion gravy. A simple baked potato, topped with butter and melting gooey cheese is an perfect, and easy, winter meal and the first Jersey Royals are a sure sign that spring is in full bloom.
And then there is the chip. As far as simplicity goes, this is about as basic as it gets. A fried potato. But somewhere between that slightly chewy, slightly crispy exterior and the fluffy warm inside, lies a perfect food moment. A little sea salt, perhaps a splodge of ketchup or mayonnaise is all the gilding that is needed. The first chip should be a little too hot, so that it causes a rush of steam from within and has to be eaten with the lips open, pulling in a little air to cool the hot chip within. From there it is simple culinary bliss.
No, aren’t that good for you. Yes, they have little nutritional value but whether they are eaten in the heady midst of summer in the beer garden of your local pub, or shovelled in late night in a post imbibing, alcohol fuelled frenzy, the chip is always, always as close as it is possible to get to perfection.
And, for the record, for the purposes of this post I did both cook, and eat, a small portion of chips at ten thirty in the morning. The sacrifices I make in the pursuit of epicurean experimentation and culinary musings are staggering…