I enjoyed news this week that Peru are planning to send 1500 varieties of potato to a (self-styled) doomsday vault in Svalbad. I am probably not alone in wondering if they should also have sent some marmalade sandwiches – and, perhaps, an extra hard stare to keep them safe from ne’er-do-wells en route.
The post doomsday drama seems a popular feature on our television and cinema screens (I believe Outcasts is the latest stroll down this well-trodden path). However, none of these (to my knowledge) has involved a trip up to the Arctic circle to gather “seeds”, followed by chitting. For those less green-fingered readers, to chit a potato is not (as my schoolboy-self might have imagined) to place it in detention but instead to place the seed spuds somewhere cool and light to encourage strong, sturdy shoots before planting. I suspect post-apocalyptic society would be a much happier place with the prospect of new potatoes on the horizon (and mayhap the hope of chips to come) – especially, if the Svalbad facility also contains some seeds which when grown could provide a tasty accompaniment. I well remember the very child-like joy of thrusting my hands into the “sack” where I grew my spuds last year (for the very first time!) and being rewarded with white gold.
Little could Sir Walter Rayleigh when he (allegedly) brought back potatoes to these shores – and before he went on to start bicycle production in the city of my birth, Nottingham – have imagined his “discovery” would aid the restoration of civilisation after some future cataclysm. Apologies for the hedging (and any inaccuracies) involved in the last sentence (though, hedging as a craft skill is in decline, so I am pleased to give it some prominence in this blog), but I would have to admit my knowledge of Sir Wally is a little shaky. When I studied history it was (a) a lot more recent, (b) rather smaller in volume and (c) covered only the period from the English Civil War up to (but not including) the outbreak of the First World War. As a result, I think I missed all of the history currently taught to our young people or used as the basis for television documentaries – starting as I did after the Tudors (and so the period when pirates – like Rayleigh – were British and preyed on the Spanish potato galleons) and stopping well before the Nazis.
The humble spud has, it would seem, conquered the world. It underpinned the Industrial Revolution and according to Engels (a biography of whom I am currently reading) it was the equal of iron – though, I would have to admit it left fewer bridges, railways or steamships in its wake and no great potato-linked characters to equal “Iron Mad” Wilkinson. It is grown and eaten on every continent (except Antarctica, where I believe frost, blight or maybe Colorado beetle prevents its successful cultivation) even if we don’t consider its inexplicably popular fried forms: chips and crisps (or “French” fries and chips for our US readers). By the way, I am thinking of creating my own range of healthy, organic chips (probably to be sold through Waitrose, perhaps under the Duchy Original’s brand) aimed at the Twitterati and the Radio4 audience under the brand name of Stephen Fries – surely, even the most staunchly (or, is rabidly the right word?) Republican of our friends across the herring pond could not object to chips so-monikered?