IberiaNature A guide to the natural history and food of Spain

Potatoes in Spain

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Patates / Patatas / Potatoes are not as fundamental to meals in Spain as they are in Ireland or even Britain , and most people in this country can live quite happily for days or even weeks on end without once eating a potato in any shape or form. As an Irishman, I can't.

The potato was first domesticated and cultivated as a crop by the ancestors of the Incas in Peru . The plant's poisonous leaves and interestingly self-reliant sex life have already been mentioned in the entry about its cousin the tomato. All Spaniards are firmly convinced that Spain was the first country in Europe to import the potato from the New World, but most are hazy on the details of who or when, and mutter something vague about Columbus in 1492. English or Irish versions involving Sir Walter Raleigh and the Golden Hind are dismissed as the bogus claims of a pirate. Nevertheless, I believe that it was in fact that gallant gentleman / bloodthirsty buccaneer who cultivated the first potato crop in Europe on his estate near Youghal in Co. Cork in about 1585.

Spaniards love patatas fritas [chips], and only occasionally seem to eat potatoes any other way. Platos combinados usually feature chips, and nowadays it would be unusual to see fried / grilled steak, lamb, pork or chicken served without them.

However, there is no Spanish equivalent of the British or Irish chipper, and the only time people here eat chips in the street is on emerging from an American-style MacBurger joint. In general, eating on the street is not well regarded. Nor would it occur to people here to drench their chips in vinegar, still less in mayonnaise like the Belgians, or any of the sauces so beloved by the Germans.

Patatas fritas can also refer to crisps, but these can be further distinguished by calling them patatas fritas de bolsa or de churreria , the latter being the artisan shops or stalls where churros ( cf .) and other fatty foodstuffs are deep-fried. Most churrerias also make patatas de paja [potato straws].

Spaniards also like to use the word chips (pronounced cheeps ) to refer to silicone chips in computers etc. Cambiar el chip / canviar el xip means to change or refocus one's attention onto a new topic.

Patatas al horno refers only to baked potatoes, and I like to cook roast potatoes for my Catalan guests just to hear the exclamations of surprise. Patatas al horno are almost as nice with olive oil as with butter. Another Spanish way to cook potatoes in the oven is patatas a lo pobre, rather like lyonaisse potatoes in Ireland , chopped up and roasted in oil with lots of onions. Patatas a la crema are basically scalloped potatoes .

Patatas hervidas / cocidas [boiled potatoes] or patatas al vapor [steamed potatoes] are often served with judias verdes [green beans], guisantes [peas], acelgas [Swiss chard] or col [cabbage] as a first course. They also frequently accompany fish, but rarely appear as part of a main course dish with meat or poultry. However, they feature prominently in many bean dishes and stews.

Patatas guisadas are potatoes boiled with scraps of meat on the bone, as is estofada de patatas . The meat is often almost inedible , but nevertheless gives the spuds a lot of flavour. Again, this is usually a first course.

Marmitako is a popular Basque dish made of boiled potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, herbs and fresh atún [tuna] or bonito . It's delicious!

Puré de patatas [mashed potato] usually seems to be made from a packet in household kitchens, though of course not in good restaurants. Glory be to God that it is never served in scoops, like at my school in Ireland , where we were constantly on the lookout for green lumps. Oddly, it appears to be widely regarded as the most appropriate accompaniment for roast beef. My Argentinian flatmate Esteban likes to serve it with chorizo , but I have never seen it otherwise served with sausages of any sort or in any form, least of all anything resembling that appalling British barbarism, toad-in-the-hole.

Potato salad is not known per se in Spain , but cold boiled potatoes slathered in mayonnaise or al i oli sauce often appear as tapas or bar snacks. Ensalada alemana [German salad] is a combination of these and sliced frankfurter, and potatoes and mayonnaise also make up the bulk of the ever-popular ensaladilla rusa [Russian salad]. Another common tapa is cold potatoes sprinkled with paprika or cayenne pepper and a drop of olive oil. Pastel de patatas is a curious concoction of cold puré de patatas with tinned tuna and olives, served in the form of a loaf. It's OK .

Patatas bravas are thick chopped potatoes that have been parboiled before being deep-fried, and are served with one or more piquant sauces, salsa brava and all i oli . They are a firm favourite in many tapas bars, and it is not unknown for people to make pilgrimages to distant establishments for this dish alone. In Barcelona , Bar Tomás in outlying Sarrià gets trainloads of patata brava fans every weekend. Salsa brava varies a lot from chef to chef. The worst fate that can befall patatas bravas is microwaving, which ruins them. The same goes for Patatas a la Campesina, which are thick-wide sliced potatoes, first parboiled and then fried in shallow oil one side at a time, and served with a dressing of aceite, ajo y perejil / oil, garlic and parsley.

Mojo Picon is one of several superb spicy sauces from the Canary Islands . It is always served with potatoes, called "Papas", as in Latin America . Papas arrugadas are potatoes boiled in water containing so much salt that they do not sink. People from the Canary Islands have more than vocabulary and accent in common with Cuba or Venezuela . Like Caribbean and Central American cooks, they sometimes serve fried or roasted plantain or even banana as an interesting potato substitute to accompany meat. Some South American restaurants also serve yucca root in this way.

Boñatos [sweet potatoes] are popular in autumn, and can be bought hot from street stalls that also sell roasted castañas [chestnuts]. I like to eat the curiously orange flesh with butter and black pepper.



See also

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.



Francis Barrett's Deconstruction of Catalan and Spanish Food



Site visitors Individual visits in December 2006: 40,604