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We've come a long way since potatoes were only brown,
white or red. It's a spud renaissance.

The New Potatoes

May 24, 2000|AMELIA SALTSMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

EDISON, Calif. — Potatoes and earth smell alike out on the flat field near Bakersfield.

Alex Weiser's shovel breaks through the thin sandy crust, exposing rich brown loam. With another thrust of the shovel, the wiry young farmer pulls up the 18-inch-tall leafy plant from the earth and bares its thready roots and the cluster of Russian Banana Fingerling potatoes that dangle from it like a bunch of grapes.

We move on to another row, and Weiser brings knobby Red La Sodas to light, brilliant fuchsia orbs not yet dulled by age.

Now, that's a new potato. Just dug, with skin so thin it rubs off as your thumb grazes the potato's surface. So fresh, the potato snaps open like a crisp apple.

Only a decade ago, when it came to potatoes, it was basically your red, white and brown in the U.S. of A. Dependable, reliable, boring, the potato was the undemanding workhorse of the kitchen. Like a chameleon, it absorbed the colors and flavors of its surroundings.

The kitchen wallflower has finally been asked to the dance. Small-farm specialists like Weiser grow potato varieties from Europe and South America, as well as forgotten American favorites, and take them to local farmers markets.

That means we've got ruby-skinned, smooth-as-butter French Fingerlings, brilliant yellow German Butterballs, Russian Banana Fingerlings, Yellow Finns, pink-eyed Yukon Golds and Purple Peruvians of royal hue.

And May through July, we've got the fresh spring crop with all of its earthy sweetness intact. Although potatoes are harvested year-round in California, this is the peak season.

It's a surfeit of riches; so many potatoes, in fact, that you might be tempted to walk right by them. Do you boil 'em, bake 'em or fry 'em? Does it really matter? And which are really new?

The Spud's Story

A little history sheds light on our bewilderment at the produce stand. Thousands of multicolored varieties have been developed since the potato was first cultivated in Chile and Peru more than 10,000 years ago. Potatoes traveled from Peru to Spain in the 16th century and slowly made their way through Europe. Most potatoes came to North America during the 17th century from the British Isles.

According to Meredith Sayles Hughes, founder of the Potato Museum, situated in New Mexico, only two potatoes found in this country today traveled directly north from South America: the Purple Peruvian Fingerling and the Ozette, which was given by the Spanish to the Makah Indians of the Olympic Peninsula in the 18th century.

Although there is much talk of heirloom potatoes, in reality varieties dating from before the 1870s are scarce. This is mainly because of the same poor seed propagation practices that led to the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century, which left many varieties so susceptible to disease that they are now impossible to grow. Some of these older potato varieties are preserved only in gene banks, where plant geneticists are still trying to "debug" them.

Most of the yellow and fingerling potatoes we see are from Europe. The now-popular thin fingerlings were once discarded in this country as commercially impractical because they fell through the harvester.

As seed potato grower Dave Ronniger tells the tale, our chic French Fingerlings were unceremoniously smuggled into this country in a horse's nosebag 90 years ago and called "Nosebags" until he figured out that a name change (its proper name is Roseval) would help sales.

This gets confusing for the shopper, especially because potato names often changed in migration. The adored La Ratte potato that people come back from France asking for looks suspiciously like the Russian Banana Fingerling from the Baltic.

Further complicating matters, commercial growers and vendors often don't want to be bothered with expensive varietally accurate labeling. That's why "Yukon Golds" don't always look the same in the supermarket. Sometimes we find them round, yellow and thin-skinned, with pink eyes and a pale interior (true Yukons), but sometimes they're deeper yellow with russet-like skin (Yellow Finns).

"Yukon Gold is a variety but became a marketing name for just about any yellow potato," says seed potato grower Greg Anthony. The reason is the desire to keep a constant supply in the market of what is actually a highly seasonal crop.

Know Your News

Weiser digs the first young potatoes by hand, before the rest of the crop matures, and gets them to market immediately. These fragile-skinned gems bruise too easily for commercial handling.

When the potatoes are ready, Weiser "rolls" the vines with a heavy machine, breaking the vines and killing the plant to stop its growth. The plants can also be killed by depriving them of water. Then he "cures" the potatoes by covering them with soil for several weeks to allow the skins to set. Only then can he harvest by machine.

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