I come from a long line of Bavarians reared on potatoes. My childhood memories are of rich potato soups with Frankfurter sausage; beef stews mopped up with potato dumplings; and a wonderful thing called Bratkartoffeln, a fried potato dish made with yesterday's boiled potatoes, onions and speck.
Potatoes add comfort to a dish in a way bread, polenta or pasta just can't match. They can also be really luxurious - and French cooks, in particular, take the potato to a whole new level. Think of the classic pommes purée: not just mash but a creamy, rich purée. Or galette, or pommes Anna, a cake of potato wafers cooked in clarified butter until golden and crisp. A dish I often cook at home is pommes boulangère, which is thinly sliced potatoes and onions cooked in chicken stock with white pepper and dobs of butter, topped with Gruyère cheese. It makes a roast chook sing.
The humble potato has come a long way in a short time. Not long ago you had a choice between red and white. Now my local greengrocer has 10 varieties to choose from at the height of the potato season - which is fantastic, but it can be a bit daunting if you're not familiar with all of them.
Potatoes are categorised as new or mature, and by variety. New potatoes have been dug up early. They have very thin skin and a crisp texture, which makes them lovely boiled or roasted whole for salads and sides, but they're light on flavour. Most potatoes are harvested mature; they tend to be richer in taste and can be floury, waxy or somewhere in between.
Waxy varieties, such as kipflers, are dense in texture and are low in starch. This makes them ideal for boiling and salads because they have great flavour and hold their shape once cooked. They do not, however, make good mash (too gluggy), nor are they ideal for chips. On the other end of the spectrum are the potatoes we term floury - such as the sebago and the russet Burbank, which are high in starch, and low in sugar and moisture. They fry up beautifully but tend to collapse when boiled. Then there are varieties of potatoes which are somewhere in between.
Potato plants grow in the summer months then gradually die down, leaving the tubers waiting in the ground to be dug up throughout autumn and winter. Australia's extensive climatic range, however, means we are able to get fresh potatoes year round. The Victorian harvest starts in late December and continues through to around August. The season travels north through the Mallee to northern NSW and finishes in Queensland, which supplies the majority of our potatoes from November to January. Stored well, potatoes will last many weeks, even months.
My picks of the varieties are Nicola for salads and gratin; Dutch cream for soups; King Edward and royal blue, an old Scottish heritage variety, for mash and gnocchi; and russet Burbank and Otway red for roasting and pommes frites.
Gordon Jones, a potato farmer in Warragul, Gippsland, says it's a myth that a potato is no longer fresh once it sprouts and should be thrown out. Sprouting is a natural process in the life of a potato. Indeed, it's how potatoes reproduce. Sprouting has no undesirable effects unless the sprouts have grown so long that the potato is deprived of nutrients and begins to soften, shrivel and lose its flavour. If the potato is still firm, you can snap off the sprouts before you cook. "Good healthy potatoes will sprout," says Jones. "In fact, I'd be more concerned if a potato didn't sprout" - this would suggest the potatoes had been held for a long time in cold storage or sprayed with sprout suppressant. Some supermarkets typically refrigerate potatoes to stop them from sprouting. A side effect of refrigeration is that it turns starch into sugar, making fried potatoes brown quickly.
It's essential to store potatoes in complete darkness. Exposure to light will give potatoes a green tinge, which is a sign that they will taste bitter and unpleasant. In large doses, such potatoes can cause you to feel ill. Spuds are best stored in thick brown paper bags in a dry, dark, cool cupboard. Don't keep them in the fridge or in foam boxes or plastic, because this causes them to sweat and rot. Soil offers protection from deterioration and greening, so wash it off just before cooking.
Potatoes are incredibly versatile and not limited to savoury cooking. My mother often made desserts out of potatoes; a particular favourite of mine was Kartoffelpuffer, a pancake made from grated potatoes, onions, eggs and flour. It was fried in a generous amount of butter, much like a rösti, and served with cinnamon, brown sugar and apple sauce. Not French, of course, but completely delicious.