See, the thing is that Europeans were generally suspicious of spuds in the early years after their arrival from the New World and, however hard it may be for me to imagine, a great many people were loathe to eat them. They were rumoured, among many other things, to be a cause of leprosy, which would, you’d have to admit, be a bit of a turnoff.
The tubers had their champions though, and motivated by a disastrous failure of crops in the late 18th Century, King Frederick The Great of Prussia, who had quite rightly figured that potatoes would be a rather excellent way of feeding the poor, is reported to have issued what has been called “The Brandenburg Potato Paper” in 1770. This was an edict which gave peasant farmers a choice between planting potatoes and having their ears and noses cut off (which, one would think, was a bit of a no-brainer). Within a few years, and after sustained official pressure (which may or may not have involved relieving the peasantry of certain extremities), potatoes became a Prussian dietary staple, even to the point where, less than ten years after the edict, the Bavarian War of Succession (1778-9) became known as the Potato War, because the Prussian and Austrian armies involved spent a great deal of their time foraging for food and digging up the local potato crop.
These days, it seems unlikely that you will be threatened with the removal of anything, bodily or otherwise, if you are less than enthusiastic about your intake of potatoes. We may in time, however, develop our own 21st Century reasons for casting a wary eye over potatoes. There is, for example, much suspicion associated with genetic modification (GM) and what its opponents like to call frankenfood, that which results from engineered alliances of DNA that would never occur in nature. It remains a highly emotive topic and, while nobody is quite suggesting that these foods would cause our ears and noses to fall off, there are at least certain valid bases for concern – cross-contamination with non-GM crops and the control exerted by large, commercial organisations like Monsanto on the global food supply high among them.
I mention this in the context of Teagasc, the Irish agriculture and food development authority, who, last week, were successful in their application for a license to conduct field trials on genetically modified potatoes at their Oak Park Research Centre in Co. Carlow. The trials, which should enable the environmental impact of GM potato planting to be assessed under closely monitored conditions, are being conducted with the ultimate aim of developing a potato that has greater resistance to the spud’s historical nemesis of potato blight. While a successful outcome to such trials may eventually result in a potato that requires less in the way of fungicides during the growing season, the local anti-GM lobby is quick to point out what it sees as a short-sighted move, at variance with Ireland’s clean, green food-island image. While Teagasc stress that the project, funded through the EU’s Framework 7 research programme, is not linked to the biotechnology industry and is not about testing commercial viability, the very fact is that, with high levels of anti-GM sentiment in Europe – and whether people’s fears are well-founded or not – these could be spuds that Europeans are, once again, loathe to eat.
Garlic Mashed Potatoes
When it comes to potatoes and GM, the bottom line is that I am much more Garlic Mash than Genetically Modified. What you will find below is a mash that, frankly, you have no business making if you’re not a garlic fan, while it goes without saying that I expect, given your presence here, that you’re naturally a fan of potatoes too.
The recipe is adapted from one in Lucy Madden’s book, A Potato Year, which features a potato recipe for each of the 365 days in our standard calendar. It is based on the entry she includes for today, July 29th, for garlic potato purée. It basically amounts to mashed potato mixed with butter and a heavily garlic-infused béchamel sauce, and she describes it simply as “glorious food.” I can’t say that I disagree.
- 900g potatoes, preferably a floury variety
- 200ml milk
- 100g butter, divided
- 3-4 large cloves garlic, peeled and slivered
- 1 tblsp plain flour
- a pinch of grated nutmeg
- 1 tsp dijon mustard (or more to taste)
- freshly ground black pepper
You’ll also need:
- A potato ricer, though not essential, is always useful when it comes to mash.
- Scrub the potatoes and, halving or quartering them to ensure roughly even-sized pieces, steam or boil in well-salted water until just fork-tender.
- While the potatoes are cooking, place the milk in a small, heavy bottomed pot. Bring gently to the boil, then remove from the heat.
- In another small saucepan, melt 50g of the butter and add the slivered garlic. Let the garlic soften over a gentle heat for around 7-8 minutes.
- Stir the flour, nutmeg and mustard into the butter and garlic. Gradually blend the milk into the garlic mixture, stirring to make a smooth, thick sauce. Bring the sauce to the boil and allow it to simmer for a minute or so, then remove from the heat. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
- When the potatoes are done, drain well and return to the saucepan. Then either let them sit, covered by a tea-towel, for about 5 minutes or place the pan over a low heat and stir the potatoes gently for a minute or so while they dry out. Peel them if you haven’t already done so.
- Put the cooked and still warm potatoes through a potato ricer, if you have one, or mash with a potato masher or, if all else fails, a fork.
- Roughly chop the remaining 50g butter and stir through the potatoes, then gradually stir in the garlic sauce. Add a little more milk if you prefer a looser consistency and add more salt and black pepper if you think it needs it. Serve and enjoy with steak or sausages or fish or chicken or perhaps, just perhaps, with nothing more than a spoon.
- As with any mash, the variations are endless: add a sprig or two of rosemary when you’re boiling the potatoes; add a dollop of cream to the mash make it even richer; stir in some chopped chives or parsley; mix in a few capers or spice it up with some diced jalapeños; your mash really is your oyster.
- Serves around 6 as a side dish