How the humble spud saved our skins

In the 19th century, potatoes were the salvation of the Jews.

By Ruth Joseph, December 30, 2008

What a fascinating role the potato plays in Jewish social history. Contrary to the Tudor legend, it was first introduced to Spain in 1570 by the Spanish conquistadors, who discovered it while hunting Peruvian gold. But the Spanish distrusted and ostracised the new tuber. As it was not mentioned in the Bible and originated from a heathen culture, it was frowned on by the Catholic Church.

The potato was thought to carry diseases and, being part of the deadly nightshade family, was considered to be the devil’s food. Nevertheless, its cultivation and use spread slowly to Italy, France and the rest of Europe, where it was regarded as a botanical curiosity.

The upper classes tried to encourage the peasants to grow the vegetable: for example, Frederick the Great of Prussia issued an order for his subjects to eat potatoes, but this met with huge opposition. So, using reverse psychology, he planted fields of royal potatoes and had guards watch the fields. Now that the crops were considered valuable, the peasants started to steal them.

Up until then, the populations of Russia, Poland, the Ukraine and Lithuania relied on rice, buckwheat, millet and pulses. These crops were unreliable and vast numbers of Jewish inhabitants perished when their meagre stores of food ran out. After the severe harvests of 1839 and 1840, the potato was introduced as an alternative crop.

Under Catherine the Great, the peasant population had been encouraged to settle in the fertile lands of the Ukraine and Middle Volga and ordered to plant the potato. When Czar Nicholas, her son, imposed this edict in 1850, potato production doubled and the Jewish population quadrupled in numbers. The potato had saved the peasant Jews from annihilation by replacing their watery gruel with a nutritious carbohydrate, which they ate along with rough bread and other vegetables such as cabbage and carrots, pickles, an occasional herring or a very occasional chicken.

The potato can be sown in almost any habitat and, unbeknown to the peasants at that time, contained large amounts of fibre, vitamin C and minerals: in fact every necessary nutrient except vitamin A, Vitamin D and calcium.

Today we can enjoy potatoes in many ways. Tiny new potatoes are best served steamed and dressed with butter or light lemon vinaigrette and a liberal addition of chopped chives or fresh mint.

The older potato mashes wonderfully with butter and milk to make the ultimate comfort food. Or add frozen peas and chopped basil and bake as a side dish. This freezes beautifully.

Combine well-seasoned mashed potato with some braised onions, flakes of cooked salmon, and beaten egg. Form into rissoles, dip in matzo-meal and fry gently. Or microwave spuds for a few minutes, then smear a little olive oil on the outside, sprinkle with salt crystals and bake on high in the oven until crisply golden. Now the skin, which nutritionally is the best part, becomes the most tempting. Fill it with Greek yoghurt and chopped watercress for a perfectly healthy meal.

Fluffy potato bake

Makes a light lunch or supper for four

● 650g, 1lb potatoes — well scrubbed and cut into pieces
● 2 medium eggs
● 125g, 4oz fresh cooked spinach or drained tinned, chopped asparagus
● 125g, 4oz grated cheese, or skinned smoked fish fillet
● Salt and pepper
● 1 teaspoon paprika or ground cumin (optional)
● 25g finely chopped parsley or coriander (optional)

● Grease a 19cm x 9cm,
(7½in x 3in) soufflé dish or oven-to-table dish. Pre-heat oven to 190˚C, 375˚F, gas mark 5
● Boil potatoes in a little salted water until tender (I like to retain the skins, which contain most nutrients).
● Drain, put back in the pan. Separate the yolks and whites of the eggs, placing the whites in a grease-free bowl. Warm milk, add to the potatoes and mash well. ● Combine with egg yolks, spinach, cheese or fish. Season well.
● Add paprika or cumin and chopped herbs if you wish. Whisk egg whites then lightly fold into potato mixture.
● Bake for 20-30mins until golden and firm to the touch.
● Serve with purple sprouting broccoli or a salad.

Last updated: 4:53pm, December 30 2008