Peru travel…for potatoes?
Potatoes, really? Could it be that the premier culinary travel company Access Trips is leading with potatoes for the first blog in the New Year? Well, yes! As it turns out, the humble potato, founder of the French fry, reason for Au gratin, star of the Irish potato famine, and a staple of the American diet has roots stemming in Peru and South America, a place we gladly added to our culinary circuit in 2016, and we’re eager to share with you a bushel of highlights about this mighty tuber.
Potatoes, which in the states are often found as the Russet, Yukon Gold or Red, originated in South America – Peru to be exact. Discovered by the Spanish conquistadors, and exported to Europe, the potato took its time reaching international fame. In fact, several European dignitaries pushed for potato consumption when they first arrived on the continent, and weary Spaniards, French, and Italians were not easily persuaded by this strange and starchy vegetable. Still, over time potatoes found their place on the European palette, but not until the 1600’s, a mere 7,000 years after they were first cultivated in Peru.
The predecessors to the potatoes we eat today were actually quite poisonous members of the nightshade family, but careful cultivation by ancient Incans and adaptive eating, including the addition of clay to their diets, allowed today’s edible and nutritious varieties to be created. Through breeding and over centuries, Peruvians have cultivated thousands of varieties of edible and nutritious potatoes. Some, unlike what we often find on the store shelves in the U.S., taste nothing like what you might consider a potato, but instead could be dry and crumbly, dehydrated and used in stews, or creamy like butter. Potatoes in Peru come in shades of brown, red, yellow, purple, blue, orange and more.
The ancestors of today’s potatoes, Solanum tuberosum, can be traced back 8,000 years to the Peruvian and Bolivian border. Saveur Magazine writer Shane Mitchell states “According to legend, when the mythical founders of the Inca Empire, Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo, emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca, the sun god Viracocha taught them how to sow potatoes. Early hunter-gatherer communities began by domesticating wild plants that grew abundantly around Lake Titicaca. Beyond Cuzco, in the sacred valley of Urubamba, pre-Colombian farmers cultivated other crops—tomatoes, beans, and corn—but the potato proved most suited to the Quechua (valley) zones; growers eventually developed frost-resistant species that thrived on alpine tundra as well.” Says Mitchell, “The potato would become fundamental to the Andean worldview; time was measured by how long it took for a pot of spuds to cook. In 1995, a Peruvian-American research team found that families in one mountain valley grew an average of ten traditional varieties, each with its own name. The International Potato Center has documented almost 5,000 kinds indigenous to Peru, many so rare they never get to market but are instead traded within the immediate community where cultivated.”
Ancient Potatoes, Modern Peru
Today, top chefs in Lima are looking for the best tubers in the land. Farmers of unique varieties are held in high esteem as heritage crops and traditional foods take center stage, blended with European influences and modern cooking techniques. To taste potatoes in Peru is to be part of their historical beginnings and their modern influence, and chefs know that limiting those tastes would be a detriment to this vegetable and the culinary scene.
On our Access Trips Peru tour, you won’t just taste potatoes you’ll also see the places they grow best, the Peruvian highlands, and experience ancient cooking ceremonies there as Quechua women cook potatoes in Pachamanca stone ovens. In Lima, you’ll taste test ceviches with classic sweet potato sides, and find this wonderful and diverse tuber in a myriad of other fusion dishes representing Japanese, Chinese and European migrations to Peru.
So next time you order a simple french fry or whip up some deluxe mashed potatoes, imagine where this tuber traveled from over the last several hundred years, and just how it has changed to land at the grocery store near you!