Every Saturday during ‘Key Ingredients’ on Erewash and Beyond we look at a different food and its place in our lives. This week’s key ingredient is the potato, a staple of human diets for millennia. They’ve grown wild in South America for as long as 13,000 years. People in Chile have cultivated potatoes since at least 5000BC and the crop has taken well to European soils providing the bulk of many British meals – bangers and mash, fish and chips and the good old roast all cry out for the terrific tuber that is the spud.
It’s said that the Vikings were the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas, early in the 11th century. History’s a little sketchy on what exactly Leif Erickson and friends got up to while they were over there. However scientists have hypothesised that, based on genetic sequencing undertaken in Iceland, the nautical Norsemen returned with at least one Amerindian woman. What we really don’t know at the moment is what American foods the Vikings sampled on their trip. They may have encountered the potato but I don’t think the Icelandic sagas make specific reference to recipes for hash browns or shepherd’s pie.
Sir Walter Raleigh is the one who usually gets the credit for introducing both the potato and tobacco to Europe but as is so often the case this is more myth than fact. The Spaniards beat Raleigh and his crew to the spud’n’smokes chase by bringing them back to Europe in 1570 meaning that our Elizabethan ancestors already knew about them. What Raleigh did do though was popularise smoking at court. So we’ve got him to thank for that.
The potato wasn’t an immediate hit across the British Isles. Some Protestants refused to plant the new crop because there was no mention of potatoes in the Bible. Catholics on the other hand were much more open and liberal in their attitude, and would at least consider munching on spuds as long the seed potatoes had been sprinkled with holy water and planted on Good Friday. The fact that potatoes are not the prettiest of produce and originated amongst the heathens of South America did much to delay their acceptance. For a couple of centuries many tried to encourage the consumption of potatoes but it took the food shortages of the late 18th century to make it become a staple of English diets. The scarcity of other food was accompanied by pamphlets and editorials extolling the virtues of the potato. The upper classes, inspired by pro-potato literature, took to the tuber first and were followed soon after by the lower classes, finding that hunger and fashion were antidotes to superstition and suspicion.
In nineteenth century England and Wales, a boom in population accompanied the boom in potato cultivation and consumption and it is debatable which was the cause and which was the effect. Potatoes are extremely nutritious containing vitamin C as well as protein, potassium, B vitamins and starch. This helped fight against the effects of such diseases as scurvy, dysentery, tuberculosis and measles.
The industrial revolution needed fuel for its workers and the potato was there to provide it. And in the 1860s while British innovation was enjoying a high the good old fish and chip shop was born giving hot, reasonably inexpensive and filling comfort food to the masses. Chippies soon spread across the land, wrapping fast food in old newspaper and keeping Britain going. Some have argued that it was the government’s protection of supplies for fish and chips that saw the nation through the first world war and George Orwell suggested the comfort food as the balm that stopped the working classes from revolting. This national dish of ours was seen as so important that during the Second World War the government made sure that it was one of the few foods not to be rationed.
The popularity of fish and chips has waned over the years with the number of chippies reducing from around 35,000 in 1929 to around 10,000 in 2009. Part of this reduction may be due to the broadening of our palate thanks to the more cosmopolitan build of our society and the increase in our travel abroad. It may also be due to health concerns about eating fried food. And as a responsible public broadcaster I would urge you to enjoy chips in moderation and as part of a healthy lifestyle. That said I am now going to talk you through making perfect chips at home. Yes you can get them from a freezer bag, bung them in the oven for 20 minutes and bingo you’ve got chips, you could walk down the road and get some from the chip shop, you could also microwave them inside some nasty cardboard but I think there’s great enjoyment to be had out of making simple things from scratch and doing it well. For my perfect chips I triple cook them.
Peel your spuds, cut them into chip-size chunks, wash them in cold water and then blanch them in boiling water for about three minutes. While those are blanching get a pan of sunflower oil heated up. Drain and pat dry your blanched chips then chuck them in the oil. Let them fry until they begin to soften and then remove them from the oil, soaking up the excess with some kitchen towel. Now leave them to cool. You could do the blanch and first fry hours ahead of when you actually need the chips, leaving you time to get other things ready. Once you’re ready to do the final fry get some oil heated up again and then throw in your chips. When they’ve become golden and crispy on the outside they’re ready to eat. This may sound a lot of faff for chips but you will be presented with a delicious, crispy outer with a hot fluffy middle. Serve with whatever you like but I’ll have mine with some battered fish, a generous serving of mushy peas and a couple of slices of bread and butter on the side. Potato perfection on a plate.