Andean Tuber Crops (2006)

If you ever travel to the high Andes and see members of the local community apparently jiving while standing on neat squares of potatoes – chances are they are squeezing water out of their special potatoes to make freeze-dried chuño blanco

I guess most of us have come across freeze-dried coffee and milk powder – but the art of freeze drying potatoes in the high Andes is far more ancient going back thousands of years and what’s more processing is inexpensive you don’t need any equipment! You let the natural environment do all the work. In addition you need access to fresh clean water from the Andes.

High in the Andes up to about 4,000 metres special varieties of potatoes grow. they naturally contain their own glyco-alkaloid antifreeze compounds as the atmosphere here around harvest time is dry and warm up to 20’C in the day time but freezing cold (down to -15’C) at night. The anti-freeze compounds mean that these special potatoes are bitter and unsuitable to eat without processing.

I often wonder how the process of freeze drying these initially bitter potatoes was originally invented that turns freshly lifted potatoes into the white and easy to store and transport edible chuño blanco. Chuño is known as tunta in Ayamaran dialect – it can keep up to ten years. Chuño blanco is added to soups, stews and side dishes with cheese or with onions and eggs. The traditional chuño blanco producers from Puno in Peru outlined the process.

The potatoes are lifted and the tubers are dehydrated for two to three nights. The frost breaks the cells and traditionally producers stand on the tubers to press the water out of the damaged cells. The tubers are then washed in the river and a second period of freeze drying occurs after they have been removed from the water. The tunto is dried in the sun (possibly peeled and diced but I need to check this), polished and left in the open air and dried again. The length of the process depends on the variety being processed and the degree of frost. Around five thousand tonnes of bitter potatoes are processed into 1000 tonnes of tunto every year – La Paz in Bolivia is an important market. Farmers are also looking at alternatives to their traditional local markets for tunto, tunto is being marketed in international fares.

Viva the Yacónaros
Potatoes are now almost universally known about, however there are other Latin American root crops that were left behind by the Spanish Conquestadors. They have had little publicity outside their original areas of production. Yacón is one such example, a distant relative of the sunflower it produces roots roughly the size of sugar beet and its leaves are used as a tea. The Yacón’s root is sweet to taste – but the sugar it contains – fructans cannot be digested by the human gut which has stimulated some interest in the crop as a source of sweetness for people on a diet or suffering from diabetes. Although the human gut cannot absorb the sugar contained in Yacón it is beneficial to the health of good bugs in our digestive system. Yacón products from the Province of Jujuy in North West of Argentina were on display at Slow Food’s Terra Madre in Turin in 2006. The Fundacion para el Ambiente Natural y el Desarollo a Slow Food Presidium are raising awareness about the benefits of Yacón. There have been efforts to increase local consumption and there have been training activities for use, as well as biodiversity fares and increase sales at local markets. Links to local schools have also highlight properties of the root. Yacón roots were originally used as a dessert – but are increasingly being used for savory dishes like salads. Five families were originally keeping the production going in the area but this has now grown to more than 60. Everyone gets involved in the harvest and little is wasted the stems are used for animal feed. Older members of the community have played an important role in keeping the diversity alive. In common with many minority crops – it has suffered from a low status and the producers the Yacónaros have in the past were not considered an important part of society. Their image is now changing and there is even a local football team named in their honour!

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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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