A Home For Potato Knowhow

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 A selection of the thousands of native potato varieties that grow in Peru. Photograph: The International Potato Centre

Thanks to Dan Collyns (last seen in our pages in 2013), writing in the Guardian, for this:

How Peru’s potato museum could stave off world food crisis

Agri-park high in the Andes preserves the expertise to breed strains fit for a changing climate

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A worker picking potatoes high in the Andes. Photograph: The International Potato Centre

With a climate changing faster than most crops can adapt and food security under threat around the world, scientists have found hope in a living museum dedicated to a staple eaten by millions daily: the humble potato.

High in the Peruvian Andes, agronomists are looking to the ancestral knowledge of farmers to identify genetic strains which could help the tubers survive increasingly frequent and intense droughts, floods and frosts.

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 A selection of biofortified potatoes, grown to be higher in zinc and iron. Photograph: David Dudenhoeffer/The International Potato Centre

The Potato Park in Cusco is a 90 sq km (35 sq mile) expanse ranging from 3,400 to 4,900 metres (16,000 feet) above sea level. It has “maintained one of the highest diversities of native potatoes in the world, in a constant process of evolution,” says Alejandro Argumedo, the founder of Asociación Andes, an NGO which supports the park.

“By sowing potatoes at different altitudes and in different combinations, these potatoes create new genetic expressions which will be very important to respond to the challenges of climate change.”

Under a cobalt sky by an icy mountain lagoon, a father and his son-in-law hoe thick brown soil. They pull out reddish potatoes and throw them into waiting sacks.

The pucasawsiray potatoes they gather are among the 1,367 varieties in the park, which lies in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The intensely cultivated patchwork of tiny fields and graded terraces is a living laboratory of potato diversity.

The potato was domesticated 7,000 years ago by the ancestors of these Peruvian peasant farmers on the shores of Lake Titicaca, between modern-day Peru and Bolivia, say archaeologists. The Potato Park is considered a secondary centre of origin for the potato, which today is grown on every continent on Earth except Antarctica. Scientists at the US space agency Nasa and the Peru-based International Potato Centre have even been testing whether potatoes can be grown on Mars.

The Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas have myriad descriptive names for the cornucopia of potatoes grown and eaten in Peru’s southern Andes, from a squat, greyish tuber named after an alpaca’s nose to a yellow indented tatty called puma maqui, or puma’s paw. There is even a maddeningly knobbly potato known as pusi qhachun wachachi, whose name literally means “make your daughter-in-law cry”, as it has frustrated so many prospective wives who have tried to pass the test of trying to peel it.

They come in every colour and texture; reds, yellows, blues and purples, sometimes shocking pink ringed with white when cut in half. Some have a powdery texture, others are waxy and some moray or chuño are are too bitter to eat until they are soaked, freeze-dried on rooftops and trampled on to remove their skins. These can be stored for months and used in winter soups…

Read the whole story here.

2 thoughts on “A Home For Potato Knowhow

  1. Very few people know about the history of potatoes in Peru. Cultivated for more than 5000 years. I touch on this in a class on world cuisine that I teach in culinary arts. Thanks for sharing and shedding more light on the research being done on potatoes there.

  2. Chef Daniel, many thanks for taking the time to comment. In the 11 years since we started this platform we have had food history and food-related conservation as key themes that we write about and link to from time to time. Always good to know when people out there appreciate the same topics we do.

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