Potato Primer

Amidst mounting fears that a long winter would delay and even reduce this year’s annual harvest, Swedes were forced to imagine the unimaginable: midsummer without new potatoes.

Most Swedes would be hard-pressed to put a value on this most nostalgic of foods. The Swedish dishes that owe their success to potatoes include: Jansson’s Frestelse, Raggmunk, Rårakor, Biff Rydberg, Kroppkakor and Pyttipanna to name just a few. But ask a hundred Swedes how they most like their potatoes and the answer is likely to be unanimous. “We eat fresh potatoes all summer long,” says Lars Elofson, a potato expert at Sweden’s Potato Association (Svensk Potatis), “But on midsummer, we want fresh potatoes, simply buttered and lightly salted, with herring and nubbe. It’s a cultural tradition that no one wants to be without.”

According to Lars, potatoes are in the midst of a comeback. Farmers are trading old varieties like precious metals and savvy consumers are beginning to know the difference between a Minerva and a Fris. But it’s fresh potatoes that are most in demand. The first potatoes to be picked each year, they are small (no more than 35mm!), thin-skinned, have a silky texture and taste like butter.

This spring, the first potato harvest brought in a bounty of 2500 SEK / kg (approx. $179 a pound). That’s €13,298 euro for 99 pounds of potatoes. Swedish television and radio was abuzz with the news: could potatoes really be worth that much?

Potatoes, unearthed

The first potatoes rolled into Olof Rudbeck’s botanical garden in Uppsala, Sweden, around 1655, after a long journey from South America via Virginia. It took almost a hundred years before Jonas Alströmer started testing the plant on his farm near Alingsås, prompting Swedish farmers to plant potatoes. Soon afterwards, the potato came into the hands of Countess Eva Ekeblad, who thought it was a shame to waste good grain by making it into brandy instead of bread. Potato vodka became an overnight success.

In the heart of Sweden’s potato belt, Bitte Persson is a 7th generation farmer at Larsviken where her family has amassed a collection of over 550 potato varieties. Each year they put ten varieties into rotation, to be sold on the farm and made into chips.

“A couple years ago we decided to build our own chipseri on the model of an old-fashioned chips factory,” says Bitte. “We bought a 1950s kettle from the U.S. and my brother Bertil fashioned the equipment from old parts.”

Swedes love their potato chips almost as much as their potatoes and the market is full of options, from Larssons to Svenska Lantchips. Larssons chips come in several varieties, like root chips and “wild potatoes.” The root vegetables are grown on their farm and fried in cold-pressed rapeseed oil from nearby Österlen. They are free of transitive fat and preservatives and contain no additives for colour or taste.

“When you make chips or other products from the beginning and with your heart,” says Bitte, “people who care about food are going to notice.”

Countess Eva Ekeblad’s vodka tradition is also alive and well. Several years ago the folks from the Swedish potato cooperative and chip producer, Bjäre, teamed up with Absolut Vodka creator and master distiller, Börje Karlsson, to create a robust and earthy vodka called Karlssons Gold.

Know your potato

If you overheard a conversation in which Folva was said to have “faint aromatic notes of grass and hay” and “Cherie” was said to taste “nutty with a hint of sourness and wild mushrooms,” you might think the subject was wine or cheese. It might come as a surprise that the subject is the humble potato.

To illustrate the differences in flavour and texture among potato varieties, the Swedish potato association joined forces with Sweden’s restaurant and hotel school, Grythytte Akademi. Together they established at least 32 different flavour profiles for 18 different potatoes.

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Larsviken Potatoes, from farm to plate, Skåne Photo: Erik Olsson

Swedish chefs are keenly aware of which potatoes will be at their peak during each season, and what they should be used for. “Fris grows quite quickly. It doesn’t have the best flavour, but it’s quick. By the time August comes, you have to move further north to get fresh potatoes. When I get back from vacation we’ll be working with Amandine, so we’ll roast them,” says award-winning chef Fredrik Eriksson of Långbro Värdshus
. “We work together with the farmer and tell them what type and size we want.”

Fredrik’s grandfather farmed potatoes and he grew up eating them five times a week, usually mashed. Today, instead of the classic casserole of sliced potatoes with sprats, Fredrik makes pudding. “We work with potatoes like we work with asparagus,” he says. “We make it elegant.” The menu at his restaurant in Älvsjö may include a starter of potato confit – or potato carpaccio with fresh truffles.

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The potato is powerful

Potato experts worldwide are unanimous: no other crop produces more food energy per cubic foot of land. It can be planted inside trashcans and sand piles. And it contains B and C vitamins, selenium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc and carbohydrates.

While it doesn’t look like much on the outside and it isn’t on any of the superfood lists, the potato has held up through history remarkably well. During World War II, many Swedes survived on potatoes, eating them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Perhaps because of its modest origin, this hearty root has become a symbol of the people, an everyman’s food, and a cornerstone of the Swedish diet.