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The beaty of the just
 
 

The beaty of the just

From one harvest to the next, the potato does not age in a protected and well‑regulated atmosphere

In the bosom of the great culinary family of vegetables, the potato occupies an exclusive place, for it has the advantage over all "fresh" vegetables of being imperishable. And yet, in order that it doesn't sprout, turn blue, rot or wither up, it requires special conditions. What is the potato exactly? A tuber, we've already said. What then is a tuber? It's neither a root, nor a bulb, nor a subterranean fruit, but simply part of an underground stem which, deprived of aerial growth and routed out of the earth continues to live, breathe, consume, transform and to propagate before it finally shrivels up and dies. 

To put a halt to this inevitable evolution, the Incas used natural congelation and dehydration methods. Even today one still comes across odd little wrinkled tubers which are as light as a nutshell. The "papas" underwent freeze‑drying in frosty nights and warm sunny days. This dried them out perfectly and they became porous and practically imperishable. They were prepared in the same way as pulses.

In Europe, for as long as we have known the potato, we prefer to expose it to unnatural hibernation. Hardly has it been brought to fight, when our potato returns to obscurity in the cellar and the attic. For centuries, potatoes have been stocked in a haphazard fashion. Piled up along the edge of the fields, the harvest was covered with straw and earth before the winter cold set in.


In the dry regions, holes were dug which served as store‑pits. But it wasn't uncommon to see a quarter of the harvest destroyed by frost, germination, mould and disease. Of course, no matter where the stocks were laid up, the potatoes would not only arrive with their sound instinct of self‑preservation, but with the stigmas of life in the country as well: bacterial disease, a hidden virus, an injury due to uprooting. Physiological injury may also develop during transit.

There's no point in hoping potatoes will keep if they are not perfectly intact. Besides, some varieties preserve better than others. The more precocious they are, the more short‑lived their hope of a second life.

Let us subject our humble spud once more to scientific observation. The tuber breathes, in the way plants do, obviously! It takes in oxygen and gives out carbonic gas. It perspires and emits vapour, especially if things become hectic for it, if it is displaced too often, or if it is kept in a dry or overheated atmosphere. Cut off from its roots and foliage, the plant will fall back on its own starch reserves and, as a result, start producing sugar which changes its taste and frying‑colour. This production of sugar increases at low temperatures. The refrigerator as a preservation centre for the homeless should there­fore be declared unfit. As an ultimate manifestation of its instinct for survival, germination may occur after a short period of latency. How can such vital enthusiasm be dampened?

Studies have shown that in order to reduce the tuber's respiration and check the spread of fungi and bacteria, temperatures should be kept at thirty‑nine to fourty‑one degrees Fahrenheit. However, as at this level the reducing sugars increase, a compromise at forty‑three to forty‑five degrees has been made.

For the potato to sleep the sleep of the just ‑ not to lose water or begin germinating ‑ the level of humidity should be high, ventilation good, and semi­-darkness imposed.

In the Netherlands our lovely tuberous nightshade is cautiously lifted up out of the earth, carefully car­ried to its home of rest which is the storage depot where it will remain up to nine months untouched by the onward flow of time. The Dutch have not only discovered the secret of long‑lasting potato youth but also a method which potato farmers apply scru­pulously. Each farmer stores his harvest in depots set up on the farm grounds. These have been well insulated, and the temperature inside is maintained inde­pendently from that outside. Powerful ventilators propel air at regular intervals through the piles of potatoes while a canalization system under the floor or higher up, ensures regular circulation in the room. A refrigeration system adjusts the ambient temper­ature according to the destination of the tubers: 37?F to 39?F for plants, 39?F to 41?F for consumption pota­toes, 41?F to 43?F for French‑fry processing, 43?F to 45?F for potatoes which are to be dehydrated and about 50?F for those which are to be processed into chips and for which sugar content must not be too great.

And when it is time for our sleeping beauty to get ready for its next journey, the depot is gradually heated to 59?F so that it will be able to better resist bruising.

After all these technicalities, who would still want to store potatoes in large quantities when they are available all year round as products which are fresh, calibrated, washed, dried, in bags, and sometimes even peeled?