Germany – potato country
No other country in the European Union grows as many potatoes as Germany does. Every region has its own potato dish. How come? And how did the potato get to Germany in the first place and why is it so popular?
Döppekooche (grated potatoes, onions and meat), Hoorige Knepp (potato dumplings), Knölla (another stickier kind of dumpling), Labskaus (lobscouse/stew), Backesgrumbeere (potatoes, pork and wine) or potatoes with plums, belly of pork or corned beef, as a soup, salad, cake or bake, boiled, fried or in their “jackets” – there are just so many things you can do with them. An untold number of recipes abound. Whether in the Eifel or in Thuringia, in Franconia, Palatinate, Rhineland or the Erz Mountains, there is surely not a single region in Germany that doesn't have its very own special potato recipe. How come? And why is the potato so popular in Germany?
What is the potato used for?
Essentially, the potato is there to be eaten and, in Germany, more than 70 per cent of them are. Even though per-capita consumption here has been on the decline for years, compared to rice (around 5.5 kg per capita) and pasta (around 8.1 kg per capita), potatoes are still the runaway “side dish” favourite, with every German eating an average of up a 57 kg of them a year. However, that does include processed products, such as crisps, frozen foods like French fries or potato fritters and dry products like mashed potato or dumpling mix.
But potatoes are not just a source of nutrition. They are also an economic commodity. Almost one tonne of the annual harvest is used to make starch while more than half a million tonnes are used as seed and 110,000 tonnes for animal feed.
How did the potato find its way to Germany?
In Germany, the story about how Frederick the Great was responsible for bestowing “potato happiness” on his subjects is well known. King of Prussia form 1740 to 1772, he is still referred to as “Alte Fritz” (Old Fritz) to this day. It is said that he ordered soldiers to guard a field of field of potatoes, ostensibly to protect this highly precious crop. Their curiosity aroused, the local farmers, who had up till then showed no interest in cultivating potatoes, stole some of them and started growing them themselves – or so the story goes.
And it's a nice one, if not altogether true. The brown tuber found its way into the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation much earlier on. In fact the potato, which was originally grown in the Andes, evidently came to the German region of Franconia via the Netherlands in the Thirty Years War where it was then successfully cultivated in the mid-17th century before beginning its culinary conquest of other duchies and the Prussians. In 1746, Old Fritz issued the first of his famed “potato decrees” obliging his farmers to plant at least some of their fields with potatoes.
And even though it took decades, the potato spread throughout the country, not least because it could be grown in poor or stony soils. Also, it had a higher yield per unit area than grain and no special implements were required to plant or harvest the crop.
The spread of the potato helped people get through the famine. By the 19th century at the latest, the potato had become an important part of the Germans' staple diet. And the Germans remain thankful to Old Fritz to this day: even now, visitors place potatoes on the grave of this Prussian king at the Palace of Sanssouci in Potsdam as a token of their appreciation.
What is special about the potato?
From Grumbler to Erdapfel to Bodabira, Tüffel or Knolle – there are many lovely terms for potatoes in Germany's regional dialects. Over 360 varieties are cultivated in Germany and more than 1,600 varieties are registered in Europe.
But it is not just the diversity of their regional names and varieties that make this brown tuber something special, it's what's inside them too. An average potato consists of almost 78 per cent of water and virtually no fat, which means it has only a few calories. The potato is also packed with minerals and vitamins: in fact, with 17 milligrams per 100 grams of vitamin C, it outdoes the apple.
And it's extremely ecologically important as well. Worldwide it is the fourth most important staple food after rice, wheat and maize. And potato crops do not require much water. Based on the global average, it takes some 1,400 litres of water to grow a kilo of wheat, 2,500 litres for a kilo of rice and almost 17,000 litres of water for a kilo of beef. However, the exact same quantity of potatoes thrives on only 130 litres of water.
This is one of the reasons why the United Nations has also highlighted the potato's enormous importance. The objective: to feed the world's growing population with potatoes and concomitantly conserve water resources.
Eat more potatoes!
So you see, there are so many reasons why you should be eating potatoes. But the best reason is to enjoy the taste. And the potato has a lot to offer in this respect given the many different ways it can be cooked. And this is ultimately one of the reasons why it is still one of the most popular food items in Germany. What is the potato's status in your country?