Potatoes in their centre of origin (Peru 2005) By Andrew Ormerod

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Domesticated potatoes originated in Peru and there is a huge diversity of species and types in the Andes with important characteristics for feeding the world’s growing population. A collection is held by the International Potato Centre (CIP) based in Peru I travelled up into the Andes from Lima with a group of staff from CIP by mini bus – to see the harvest CIP’s genetic resource collection at the nearby village of San Jose de Aymara over 4,000 metres up in the Andes. CIP has a rolling 5 year programme to regrow their genetic resource collection to maintain its viability and grow them at high altitude, away from pests and diseases.

The road initially passed through steep gorges threaded by an ancient railway line. Climbing higher the landscape opened out belighing the high altitude. The mountains were like a box of pastels, the varying hues indicating the mineral richness within. We were handed lemon sweets to suck to reduce the effect of high altitude.

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Drivers often carry oxygen as one effect of high altitude is on passengers and drivers falling asleep. As the bus passed 4,000 metres its engine missed the odd beat backfiring and becomes more smoky. Eventual we reached our night stop at Huancayo after 8 hours. The next morning we set off for San Jose de Aymara, quickly hitting a dusty track and continuing to climb imperceptibly because of the vast open landscape. As we got higher the maize quickly disappeared and then much later the wheat. We now came on to more of a moorland landscape, over which at regular intervals groups of farmers in their traditional costumes were harvesting root crops. Finally our dust filled bus stopped in the middle of a one street village, the only living creatures on the road nearby were a toddler and local dog. On the far hillside there was the typical zigzag furrows used in the Andes to prevent soil erosion and a large number of local people working on the land – a fire burnt near by a characteristic indication of people working the land harvesting the tubers.

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We walked down the slope passed a small black hairy pig grunting quietly and some half-grown fowls.

As we began to climb the slope – you could feel the effect of altitude and had to take it easy. Near the hedge a group of 30-40 local villagers – the women in their traditional costumes – were digging up potatoes with mattocks and putting them into small piles.

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By the end of the day potatoes in different hues pink, black, white, bi-colour, purple were evident in different shapes and sizes – including the knobbly “The One that makes the daughter-in-law Weep”.

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– Apparently provided as a challenge for potential daughter-in-laws to peel in the Andes!

In a lower field a small team were digging up potatoes with different flesh textures that had been identified as suitable for crisping and later a variety of crisps from these potatoes were displayed next to them and handed round for us to try.

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Currently the crisps are finding a market in airports as a way of helping to preserve biodiversity and improving incomes. CIP are also looking at coloured mash potato as a means of utilizing biodiversity.

Pachamanca (Earth Oven)
Two women were busily gathering herbage below the potato field and taking it to the next field where a fire was burning.

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One local woman was fuelling a stone dome-shaped oven with wood.

After some time when the stones were hot – they were allowed to collapse and samples of potatoes were carefully arranged on the hot stones with more stones added on top.

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Then followed by more stones and seasoned meat then the herbage, then the tarpaulin and this was covered in soil.

After an hour the potatoes and meat were cooked and the hot stones pile was dismantled. The local people came in from their digging work and sat alongside a long strip of ground cover with the hot potatoes of different types in front of them bowls of a white sauce and the meat accompanied the potatoes.

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After lunch the CIP staff went carefully around the field and lay a bag a net and a label next to each plot. Only the best potatoes were selected for packing the paper bags.

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A team of Yamas (llamas) was loaded up (rather reluctantly with some of the potatoes later on in the day. As we left for the day the work of packaging the potatoes continued.

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And why were CIP’s stock of potatoes being grown at over 4000 metres? It is too high and cool for aphids and other insects, and potato blight and bacterial wilt do not flourish.

©  Andrew Ormerod 2013

About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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