The potato changed the European landscape. For many it was subsistence food – feast or famine. In the low countries, in Germany, Poland, Ukraine, in the Baltic states, in Russia, in Scandinavia, in the islands of the Atlantic fringe, in central Europe, in the Balkans … the potato became the dominant crop, changing everything.
We can see today the impact of the potato on traditional food. A protein package, it symbolised working life by providing energy and well-being in every imaginable kind of form.
The potato was baked, boiled, cooked, fried, mashed, powdered, stuffed and sautéed. It produced national dishes in many countries, and replaced standard ingredients in traditional dishes.
Now it is used as a filling for countless breads and pastries, such as štruklji, the strudels of Slovenia.
It is used a thickener in soups, such as the French bouillabaisse, the Finnish lohikeitto, the Greek psarósoupa, the Monasque l’estocafic, the Irish chowder and the Scottish cullen skink.
It is used as an bulking and thickening agent for stews, such as the chickpeas and meat stew of Spain, the veal and vegetable stews of the Austrian and Italian alps and the steppes of Ukraine.
It is used in pastries and pies, and in omelettes and pancakes.
But for all these uses, perhaps the mashed and puréed versions are the most versatile, because they become the ingredient for griddle cakes and farls, and for countless preparations.
Paul Farrelly of Killeshandra was 19 when he got laid off from the building sites. It was the boat for England or boxty for Ireland. He decided to stay and now, three decades later, he has a thriving business making and selling boxty to shops in Cavan, Leitrim and Longford, and via Musgraves of Cork to various Centra and Super Value outlets around the country.
He says it was one of those little accidents of life. Accident or not, to make a success of an artisan food business in the early 1980s required more than providence.
His mother Nan, who ran a home bakery, provided the expertise and skill, and away they went grating and squeezing floury kerrs pinks to make a boiled boxty rooted in the tradition of west Cavan life.
Boxty has been a traditional food in the north-western counties for a very long time. There is an association with halloween and the late crop of the year. Its similarity with the Swiss pan-fried grated potatoes and with the potato dumplings of the Baltic countries may be coincidental, or not.
Farrelly believes credit for its longevity should go to the mother of invention and those intrepid home cooks, who always found ways to use left-over potatoes from the daily pot, and refused to throw out bad potatoes, cutting off and grating the good bits for various uses. Mixing raw and cooked potatoes is not unique to Ireland. Baking floured potato cakes on a griddle and boiling potato dumplings are traditions in numerous European countries where the potato was a subsistence crop.
Farrelly is glad boxty now has a profile. In 1983 boxty was an enigma. It was known in west Cavan, Leitrim, Longford, parts of Mayo and in north Roscommon but not in east Cavan or Monaghan or the rest of the country. When he tried to sell their boxty, one woman queried him.
“Why would I want to buy your boxty, when I make my own?”
But Farrelly and Nan persevered, buying custom made equipment from a factory in Broughshane in county Antrim, and very gradually Drummully Boxty was established.
By refining the traditional method and by using good rooster potatoes from county Meath, Farrelly and his mother created a business that now employs three people, keeping them all at home, away from the ignominy of migration, rooted in their place.
Just like the song.
Boxty IRELAND dumpling potatoes
Traditionally boxty was made on the griddle, with the starch from raw potatoes, mash from boiled potatoes and salt. Gradually the method changed to boxty boiled in a pot, boxty fried on a griddle or in a pan, and boxty baked in the oven.
Flour was added to pan boxty, then milk and bicarbonate of soda to form a batter that could be cooked like a pancake.
Flour was also added to baked boxty along with butter or lard or bacon fat, seasoned, and shaped into farls.
Drummully Boxty is made with potatoes and salt, and boiled, then cut and fried (or baked).
500 g rooster potatoes, peeled, grated and squeezed to release liquid
500 g rooster potatoes, boiled, skinned, mashed
10 g salt
Water, for boiling
When the hard starch has separated, pour away the clear liquid, and quickly add to the mashed potatoes, season.
Shape into large dumplings, 8 cm in diameter at the round end, and boil for 20 minutes.
From Cheese, Chowder and Comfort Food: Ireland’s Traditional Food Renaissance.
Brændende Kærlighed DENMARK Burning Love!
(potato mash with bacon and onions, herbs and local specialities)
In Denmark it is the tradition to serve mashed potatoes garnished with bacon and onion and the specialities of the region where you originate. These accessories can come from a selection of cheeses, pickles and sausages as well as beetroot, carrot and cucumber, and berries, herbs and fruits.
With the industrialisation of the country in the 19th century, migrating workers brought their traditional dishes to the city. This dish, euphemistically known as burning love because of the piping hot potato mash, epitomised the food of the provinces, each putting their own version into the mix.
1 kg floury potatoes, peeled, quartered, boiled
300 g bacon, cubed small
300 g onions, finely chopped
200 ml cream or creme fraiche
150 g beetroot, peeled, diced
50 g butter
50 ml milk
5 g chives, chopped
5 g parsley sprigs
5 g sea salt
5 sprigs thyme
Nutmeg, large pinch
Pepper, large pinch
Olive oil, for greasing
Preheat oven to 200°C.
Place the beetroot on a greased baking tray with the thyme, bake for 15 minutes.
Fry bacon in a pan without fat or oil until it is crispy, set aside.
Sauté onions in the bacon fat in the pan until golden.
Return bacon to the pan and heat through.
While the potatoes are still hot, mash with the cream and milk, season, and keep warm over a low heat.
Spoon into the centre of a deep plate, make a hollow in the middle, add bacon and onions followed by the butter, then the beetroot. Surround the mound with chives, parsley and personal accessories.
From Nordic Food.
Chervonyy Borsch UKRAINE red stew
Among the Slavic cuisines, traditional Ukrainian food is considered one of the most diverse, and its peculiarities are the consequence of being restricted to baking in a hot oven and cooking on hot plates.
Ukraine borrowed much of its food culture from neighbouring countries but the arrival of the potato in the 19th century impacted heavily on the use of traditional cereal, fish, meat and vegetable products.
The predominance of pork and veal, garlic and onion, berries and fruits, grains and herbs, leaf and root vegetables were the result of an agrarian lifestyle. A hallmark of these ingredients is borsch, totally representative of the diversity of native dishes.
Borsch can be green, red and cold. In the old days borsch contained beetroot and bread, but nowadays this version is rare. A technically sophisticated dish, modern borsch uses several culinary techniques and a large number of ingredients.
This is the recipe for red borsch by Andrey Kokarev, head chef at Estadio in Kharkiv.
From Tastes of Europe.
3 litres water
1 kg meat bones
700 g potatoes, cut into strips
600 g cabbage, cut into strips
500 g veal
300 g beet, cut into strips
300 g green leaves, cut into strips
300 g salo (salted pork fat)
300 g tomatoes, blended
200 g carrots, cut into strips
200 g shallot, chopped
100 g parsley root, chopped
100 ml sour cream
30 g butter
30 ml vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, crushed
5 black peppercorns, crushed
3 allspice corns, crushed
1 bay leaf
Salt, large pinch
Sugar, large pinch
Vinegar, splash for beets, splash for stew
Simmer bones for two hours, add veal and simmer for 90 minutes, strain liquid and retain the meat.
Sprinkle some vinegar on the beets, fry in oil for 15 minutes, then add a small amount of broth and stew for 20 minutes.
In a separate frying pan sauté carrot, parsley root and shallot in butter for a few minutes, then add tomatoes, sugar and vinegar.
Return to the large cooking pot.
Cook potatoes in the meat broth for 15 minutes, then the cabbage for 10 minutes, season with salt. Add stewed beets for 10 minutes, then the fried vegetables.
Simmer everything for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile cut veal into bite-sized pieces, add to the pot with the spices.
Remove pot from heat, add garlic, herbs and salo, cover and allow at least 20 minutes of infusion.
Serve in large bowls with a tablespoon of sour cream for each diner.
From Tastes of Europe.
Johann Jakob Strub brought the potato to Switzerland. A native of the canton Glarus, he was a lieutenant in the English army and according to legend returned home with a bag of seed potatoes from Ireland.
Potatoes were cultivated in Glarus in 1697.
They spread to the neighbouring cantons and by the middle of the 19th century prötlete herdöpfel, fried potatoes, replaced barley porridge as the preferred breakfast among farming families around the growing city of Zurich.
The recipe travelled south-west into the Bernese countryside and over the mountains into the Roman canton of the Valais, where it was called pommes de terre roties.
It became the morning meal among the French-speaking farmers, was shortened to roties – rösti in Swiss-German.
By the mid-20th century variations of the original recipe began to appear.
The Roman west preferred boiled potatoes, the Germanic east used raw.
1 kg potatoes, grated, squezzed and dried
4 onions, sliced
30 g oil
15 g caraway seeds, soaked
Salt, large pinch
Mix onions and potatoes, and sauté in a frying pan over a medium heat for ten minutes.
Place a plate on top of the frying pan, invert onto the plate. Oil pan and slide rösti back. Cook for 20 minutes.
The rösti story is told in Ice Travel and Snow Food: Culinary Adventures in Alpine Europe and Ice Travel and Snow Food: Culinary Adventures in Alpine Switzerland.
Other Potatoes (recipe in book)
Ice-T-Alps — Ice Travel and Snow Food: Culinary Adventures in Alpine Europe
ToE-P —Tastes of Europe Pocket Edition
Älpler Fondue SWITZERLAND fondue with macaroni, potatoes (Ice-T Alps)
Älpler Magronen SWITZERLAND macaroni, potatoes, onion rings (Ice-T Alps)
Anjovisläda SWEDEN anchovy, potato gratin (ToE-P)
Bela Krajina SLOVENIA cream of potato soup (Ice-T-Alps)
Boerenkool Stamppot NETHERLANDS mashed potatoes, onions, kale with smoked sausages (ToE-P)
Bolinhos de Bacalhau PORTUGAL fish and potato balls (ToE-P)
Bozner Herrengröstl ITALY AUSTRIA potato, veal stew (Ice-T Alps)
Brav u Mlijeku MONTENEGRO lamb in milk with potatoes (ToE-P)
Bryndzové Halušky SLOVAKIA potato noodles with Bryndza cheese, smoked bacon (ToE-P)
Bulviniai Paplotėliai su Brokoliais LITHUANIA broccoli, potato cakes (ToE-P)
Cholera SWITZERLAND apple, cheese, pear, potato pie (Ice-T Alps)
Chowder IRELAND fish soup with potatoes (ToE-P)
Colcannon IRELAND kale and potato mash (ToE-P)
Cuchêla ITALY bacon, pork ribs, potatoes, salami / sausages, seasonal vegetables (Ice-T-Alps)
Frico con Patate e Cipolla ITALY cheese, onion, potato fritters (Ice-T-Alps)
Gamsi Obara SLOVENIA chamois stew (Ice-T-Alps)
Hobotnica Ispod Peke CROATIA slow-cooked octopus with potatoes (ToE-P)
Idrijski Žlikrofi SLOVENIA stuffed potato pasta (Ice-T-Alps)
Maluns SWITZERLAND toasted potato lumps (Ice-T Alps/Ice-T Swiss)
Marillenknödel AUSTRIA apricot potato dumplings (Ice-T Alps/Ice-T Austria)
Patatnik BULGARIA cheese, egg, potato pie (Ice-T Alps)
Rösti Berner SWITZERLAND pan-fried boiled potatoes with bacon (Ice-T Alps/Ice-T Swiss)
Rösti Ursprünglich SWITZERLAND original pan-fried boiled potatoes (Ice-T Alps/Ice-T Swiss)
Skordalia GREECE garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, potatoes, walnuts (ToE-P)
Truita de Patata i Ceba CATALONIA potato omelette (ToE-P)
Varieties of potatoes are discussed in Cooked, Cured and Curdled: The modern story of traditional food in Europe.