Fest celebrates Russians' potato passion

It was a Spud-nik celebration.Thousands of scientists, business executives and gastronomes from around the world converged on Moscow this week to lavish praise on a Russian icon: the common potato.

Fest celebrates Russians' potato passion

The occasion was Moscow Potato 2007, a chance for leading potato-heads to debate the subtleties of planting, exchange cooking tips and strategize on ways to promote the potato around the world.

Moscow was a fitting venue: While New York is known as the Big Apple, the Russian capital is called the Big Potato. And rightfully so — for the lumpy tuber holds a privileged place in Russian history and hearts.

Among Czar Peter the Great's many reforms was introducing potatoes to Russia 300 years ago. They were initially rejected by the peasantry as "Devil's Apples," but potatoes quickly caught on and eventually came to rival cabbages and beets as staples of the Russian diet.

During the worst famines of the Soviet era the potato saved millions of lives.

Organizers staged the three-day spud fest at the sprawling All-Russian Exhibition Center in northern Moscow — still decorated with Soviet statues of robust maidens bearing sheaves of grain — and at the All-Russian Research Institute for Potato Growing southeast of Moscow.

Boris Vershinin, who spent four decades breeding varieties that could thrive in Russia's harsh climes, admonishes anybody who dares disparage the potato by using the diminutive Russian term "kartoshka" for the vegetable.

"It's 'His Highness Potato,'" said the biologist from the southern city of Kislovodsk. "It's Russia's second bread."

Vershinin gave a tour of the institute's potato plots to international colleagues Thursday, squeezing intriguing specimens as he lectured on the varieties he cultivated over the years.

All the while, he expounded on the potato's legacy in Russia.

After initially overcoming their suspicions, he explained, Russian peasants learned to plant the hardy crop in fields where agriculture is risky because of unpredictable weather, high humidity and early winters.

The potato became a key ingredient in everything from borscht to vodka.

During the early 1920s, as Russian agriculture collapsed, Bolshevik commissars raided villages to confiscate grain and redistribute it. All that some peasants were left with were potatoes, but it was enough to keep many alive.

Potatoes helped ease food shortages during World War II, when there was again widespread hunger. The Soviet Union's 1947 famine could have been much more devastating without spuds, Vershinin said.

For most of the 20th century, Russia produced more potatoes than anywhere else in the world — until the Chinese took the lead in the late 1990s.

Although the Russian diet has drastically improved in the 16 years since the Soviet collapse, the potato still rules many fields here. The Ministry of Agriculture says about 7 million acres of Russian farmland are dedicated to growing potatoes.

Meanwhile, Russians have been learning to eat potatoes in new ways.

During the communist era, Russians knew such things as potato chips existed, but only because they saw them in the movies. Last year, according to market research firm Euromonitor International, Russians bought almost 130,000 tons of potato chips.

After McDonald's and other fast food giants invaded post-communist Russia, peddling french fries to the potato-loving masses, local producers responded with chains grounded in national cuisine.

Kroshka-Kartoshka, or "Baby Potato," founded by two Muscovites in 1998, hawks potatoes out of brightly colored kiosks scattered throughout Moscow and other Russian cities. Their product is served whole, baked and hot — lathered with cheese and butter and stuffed with delicacies such as marinated mushrooms, salmon or fried eggplant.

"The customers vote for us with their rubles," said marketing director Mikhail Kudryavtsev.


Last Mod: 25 Ağustos 2007, 11:34
Add Comment