Where do potatoes come from?
Last month I was part of a happy group of potato harvesters picking up taewa (traditional Maori potatoes) in the garden established for them (and other traditional Maori crops) by the Koukourata marae at Port Levy. When I was gardening in Dunedin in the 1980s I obtained a deep blue or purple Maori cultivar through the Friends of the Botanic Gardens group, and grew it successfully. (Very successfully! Its dark tubers match dark soil very well, and there were always some left behind to come again the following year.) I’ve been interested in these spuds and their story ever since. Potatoes aren’t native to New Zealand, but the taewa are quite different in size and appearance from the potatoes introduced by the first European settlers. Taewa are much more like their direct ancestors in South America, and it seems they were first brought here by the American sealers and whalers who frequented these shores in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Maori grew them on and had plenty of time to create locally-adapted cultivars before large numbers of European settlers started arriving in the 1850s, bringing with them the larger, smoother and white potatoes which we are more familiar with today. These are the result of centuries of breeding in Europe after they were first introduced there in the 1500s. (See more traditional potato pictures and read more about the history of potatoes here >)
There are now estimated to be some 30 distinct varieties of taewa. If you are wondering why it is still worth growing them when the modern white varieties are much bigger and higher yielding, a study by the Riddet Institute in Palmerston North which compared the nutrient content of four varieties of taewa with that of a modern variety, (Nadine), found that they had superior nutritional values, especially with regard to anti-oxidants, essential amino acids, minerals, and anthocyanins.
The advice to ‘eat your colours’ as a way to improve your nutrition holds true for taewa as much as for blueberries and raspberries – the deep blue cultivar Tutaekuri has 6-10 times more anti-oxidants than Nadine. So how do I love thee, taewa? Let me count the ways – boiled, baked, roasted, mashed…