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Heirloom potatoes look different than their hybridized cousins, but are more flavorful.

Food and Drink

Potatoes: Easy to take for granted

Ubiquitous and unglamorous, they are a Vermont mainstay for farmers and diners alike

BRATTLEBORO—The ubiquitous potato. Grown on every continent — yes, even Antarctica, where they grow in greenhouses —€• potatoes are the world’s largest, non-grain food crop.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2013, the world production of potatoes was about 368 million tons.

Not exactly “small potatoes,” by any measure.

Back home in Windham County, potatoes are a life-saving crop for farmers. Because many varieties of potato store well during the cold months, farmers can rely on income generated from their sale when not much else is growing.

Justin Nye, of Guilford’s Circle Mountain Farm, describes the process necessary for storing potatoes: curing.

“After the plants die back, you leave the potatoes in the ground for a few weeks. That starts the curing process. When you continue curing the potatoes in darkness, after harvest, in the right temperature, it helps the potatoes store better.”

Nye, and his partner, Amy Frost, grow a number of heirloom and specialty potatoes, and they sell most of them as “new” potatoes.

“New potatoes have not been cured,” says Frost. “They are freshly dug, and we dig them up as we go through the season. So, all of our potatoes are new potatoes in that regard. With new potatoes, the plants are green and alive during harvest.”

Nye adds, “We harvest potatoes as we need them, and then we wash them as we sell them, right before market,” because, as Frost says, “People want to see the potatoes. That’s why we wash them.” But, as Nye notes, “potatoes don’t store as well if you wash them.”

John Miller of Brattleboro’s Old Schoolhouse Plantery grows mostly heirloom plant varieties, and he generally chooses potatoes developed in Europe because he prefers their flavor, noting many domestic hybrids are bred for anything but flavor, naming shipping and storage as two considerations for modern supermarkets.

A few of Miller’s preferred spuds originated in the Netherlands. Désirée, a pink-skin, yellow-flesh, waxy potato, was released in 1962. Miller says, “I don’t know if that counts as ‘heirloom,’ but it’s certainly vintage.” He says it’s got “a fabulous flavor.”

Another Dutch potato Miller loves is Bintje, a yellow-on-yellow, waxy heirloom variety, “released around 1907, as seems to be the consensus,” Miller notes. It was developed by a Dutch schoolmaster named K.L. de Vries who taught his students genetics by breeding potatoes.

De Vries “named the potato after his favorite pupil, a little girl named ‘Bin,’ which is a popular Dutch name. ‘Tje’ is a term of affection in the Netherlands. Hence, the name.”

Miller says that it is “the most widely-grown, singly-grown potato cultivar in the world,” but “it’s almost completely unknown in the United States, and almost nobody grows it in the United States except me.”

He finds that odd, because the very flavorful, general-purpose Bintje is “Europe’s and Africa’s choice for frying.”

Miller also says it’s very adaptable to so many areas of the world where potatoes grow. Miller compares the Bintje to Yukon Gold, an immensely popular potato in North America, which is all but unheard of outside of this continent.

Circle Mountain Farm grows Yukon Gold potatoes — because they have to, reports Frost. “For fries, Yukon Gold is the one. It’s a pain-in-the-ass to grow. Low yield, susceptible to disease, but, they’re super-early, and they have name recognition. Everyone wants Yukon Golds. So, we grow it.”

Miller, a native of the United Kingdom (he grew up just outside of London), has a special childhood connection to some of his favorite potatoes, such as the Maris Piper, a yellow-on-yellow potato he says originated “around 1963” in the United Kingdom.

“It’s Britain’s favorite white potato, especially for chips” —€• or, as we say on this side of the pond, french fries.

He also loves the Pink Fir Apple potato, also known as the Rose Finn Apple potato. Released in Germany in 1940, Miller says “neither the Germans nor the French liked it, but the British did."

He adds that “Britain consumes more potatoes per person than any industrialized nation,” but notes, “that depends on how you define ‘industrialized.’”

Another of Miller’s favorite is Kerr’s Pink.

He says Kerr’s Pink was “bred in a little village near Banff, Scotland,” in the 1890s by a potato breeder. But, Miller adds, “Mr. Kerr bought the potato from the breeder to settle a debt, and he renamed the potato after himself,” and released it with his name in 1905.

The potato took off, and Miller notes, with a chuckle, “it much more than settled the debt.”

Kerr’s Pink might be the potato residing in Miller’s DNA.

“My mother’s family grew up about 15 miles from Banff. They were certified Scottish potato growers. We’d visit every year and we ate very well,” he emphasized, noting Kerr’s Pink, which grows well in peaty soil, was a big part of his culinary experience at his mother’s family’s home.

Miller is not completely against domestic potatoes, noting a few that appeal to his palate.

The Peter Wilcox, also known as Purple Sun, is one. A modern potato (2007) released in Beltsville, Md., by Dr. Kathleen Haynes of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, the variety is named after a Theology professor at Loyola College, to which Miller commented: “I can’t figure out why.”

The purple-skin, white-flesh potato has a “nice flavor, it’s really excellent,” Miller says.

Purple Majesty, resembling a smooth river stone, is a blue-on-blue American potato Miller also considers a favorite. Miller says “the Purple Majesty potato has more anthocyanin (an antioxidant) per gram than any other vegetable. Anthocyanin is what gives purple vegetables their color.”

Nye’s favorite blue-skin, blue-flesh potato is the Adirondack Blue. “They’re more expensive, but the blue stays when you cook it,” he says, noting, “you can make blue mashed potatoes, which is kinda freaky.”

Frost is fond of the Adirondack Red. “It’s red skin and red flesh, and makes pink mashed potatoes. It’s a very moist potato,” she says, adding, “The German Butterballs make the knock-out best mashed potatoes ever!”

The couple also counts Blue Gold, Yellow Finn, and Chieftains as potatoes they love to grow, but Frost’s top potato is the Kennebec.

“I’ve been growing it since I was a kid,” she says, adding, “My father was into growing it. It’s got a buff skin and white flesh. It makes a delicious baked potato."

“We do taste-tests of the potatoes every year,” Frost says. “There are subtle taste differences between the different potatoes. The majority of our potatoes are all-purpose,” she adds.

During the coming season, Circle Mountain is planting 1,000 pounds of seed potatoes, encompassing 12 different varieties, which the couple report is an increase over last year. As for harvest, “10-times the seed as a yield is a medium-damn-good yield,” Frost says.

Nye notes Circle Mountain grows all skin colors of potato: red, yellow, white, pink, blue, and purple.

Frost adds, “Eat the colorful things. Don’t fear the rainbow."

“Growing potatoes is bigger than what I get from eating them,” Frost says. “It’s a purely satisfying process from growing on. The plant is beautiful, and digging them up is like digging for treasure. I love the different colors, bumps, shapes. It’s a basic food, but it’s unlike rice or quinoa because those come from far away.”

“The potato is so wonderful. It’s so magical. We plant potatoes on my birthday every year: April 27,” Frost adds. “Also, you’re digging in the dirt. It’s not a delicate form of work... it’s universally available farm work if you have hands. You get on your hands and knees and dig in the dirt. We hand-dig all of our potatoes.”

Nye reports: “This is Amy’s favorite thing to grow, if you haven’t noticed.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #300 (Wednesday, April 8, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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