Workshop report: Scottish tattie stories with John Marshall

When I was invited to attend a Tattie workshop run by expert John Marshall, I naively thought, ‘They taste great with a mound of butter – what else do I need to know?’ But I’m happy to admit I learned a great deal about the humble spud, not least that the Incas built their civilisation on bellies full of ‘Chunu’ – a sun-dried ancestor of the modern tattie.

The Conquistadors, (Spanish explorers/soldiers), were among the first to bring potatoes to Europe in the 18th Century, via the Canary Islands. One hundred years later the potato was the most important new food throughout Europe: it was cheap, didn’t spoil easily and satisfied hunger. During the Industrial Revolution, the potato kept the workers fed and in turn, fed the economy. Tatties provided a cheap source of calories and nutrients that were easy for urban workers to grow, using a fraction of the land that was needed for grains. This was particularly the case in Scotland and Ireland with the most fertile land being along the coast. When in 1845 the potato blight spread across Europe, its impact was devastating and an estimated 1.7 million people left Scotland. Recovery was, however, quicker in Scotland than in Ireland, largely due to the colder weather which helped to kill off the nasty fungus and improve the soil.

Notable early Scottish potato growers include William Paterson from Dundee who experimented with potato cross-breeding. One of his most successful varieties was the ‘Paterson Victoria’, named after Queen Victoria, apparently in the hope of increasing its popularity.

In 1904 Archibald Findlay (Auchtermuchty) built on Paterson’s work – using the Paterson Victoria in cross-breeding to establish new varieties, with much success. The 20th Century proved to be a great time for the potato as numerous growers continued to experiment with different species producing tatties on a much broader scale: the popular and versatile Maris Piper is a cross between the Majestic and Arran Cairn potatoes.

There are now over 4,000 species with around150 common varieties. Of course, we don’t see anywhere near 150 varieties on the supermarket shelves but, as John explained, this is because supermarkets tend to be interested only in stocking the hardier, longer-lasting types with some big retailers offering a single variety only. Traditional ‘Pentland’ varieties such as the Falcon, Glory, Groan or Hawk or the colourful Highland spuds are, these days, more likely to be found on organic farms and allotments such as Knowes Farm or Borders Organic Gardeners (their Potato Day is 5 March 2017, 11am-3pm). We are also planning to grow some interesting varieties in our very own Tayport Community Garden!

There are an estimated seven billion people on the planet. In 20-30 years’ time that figure is anticipated to swell to nine billion. Just how will we feed the world?

Britain currently grows around six million tonnes of potatoes per year but China is the top producer with 95,987,500 tonnes…that’s a hell of a lot of mashing. The tattie undoubtedly plays a crucial role in supplying food to the world and demand is on the increase. NASA hopes to set up greenhouses for growing tatties on Mars by 2040 so watch this space!

Not only are they versatile and tasty, they’re right up there on goodness. Around 175 grams of potato contains the same amount of iron as an egg, more potassium than a banana, fibre, Vitamin C – whereas rice and pasta have none, Vitamin B6 and they are entirely cholesterol free!

The only way to enjoy the superb taste and textures of a variety of tatties is to grow them yourself. Whether in the ground, in patio containers or grow bags we were told that the tenacious little tattie should flourish with even the minimum amount of love and attention. You can read about Kaska’s and Cathy’s tattie growing experiences in their Tayport gardens for some inspiration. And if you’d like to try growing them yourself pop into the garden for advice from Peter, PLANT Community Gardener.

I will end on a delicious recipe for a perfect winter potato dish that John Marshall shared with us at the end of the talk.

A photo of potato dishes

Accordion Potatoes
Serves 4-6

Using 6 tatties (with skins on) each the size of a tablespoon – cut ¾ of the way through and place on a roasting tray. Season with salt and pepper and place a slither of butter between each cut then bake in the oven for an hour on 180°C.

Remove the tatties from the oven and sprinkle with cheese (add ham or bacon, if desired) then return to the oven until all the cheese has melted and the skins have browned to a crisp.

You might also like to try a more unusual potato dish – potato-based Scottish macaroons. Margaret made them for the event and they were absolutely delicious. Her recipe is on the photo above– it really sounds super easy!

(Photos by Dave Vallis)

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