The unusual potato | Wikipedia

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Over the past 40 years or so we have been introduced to splendid variety of veggies from all five continents — as well as some grown nearer home that went out of fashion and then made a hugely successful comeback.

It was mainly creative cooks in California and New York City (always on the lookout for something new) who first saw the possibilities of products from South America, Asia, Africa and South-East Asia.

This led to a style of cooking that became known as fusion food because these innovative cooks used the imported fruit and veg in their own traditional recipes — thus fusing them into something new.

Supermarket chains in Britain and America saw these new products as an excellent way of diversification and they were suddenly stocking exotic produce from afar.

There came a time when top chains like Sainsbury and Safeway had teams of employees who travelled the world in search of new products for the fruit and veg department as well as dishes with an exotic touch for their pre-cooked food departments.

Sainsbury set up a group whose globetrotting innovations team, as they were called, went off in search of up-market food that was new and tasty and likely to appeal to British palates.

At the same time, creative cooks in London, Paris and elsewhere were also discovering products that were once popular in Europe but had almost died out.

These included a salad green that was that was only being cultivated in Italy where it is called arucula. It is now being eaten all over the world and is more popular than it has ever been. We know it as rocket.

The same thing happened with another salad green called mâche which the French had continued to cultivate when everyone else gave up on it. But British cooks made it popular again and in English it’s called lamb’s lettuce.

In those days Spain’s suppliers and wholesalers were very slow off the mark (they still are in some ways) and it frequently took years for a new product to reach Palma.

When anything in the food line becomes a fad in California or New York City it usually crosses the Atlantic to London and Paris and then on to the rest of Europe. Spain is inevitably among the last countries to jump on the bandwagon.

There are cases when an exotic fruit (the tropical pitahaya, for instance) arrived in Palma when it had become somewhat passé in England. One of the reasons this happens is that Spanish suppliers often wait until something has become a worldwide hit before they take a risk on it.

Even when a product finally makes an appearance here, wholesalers are reluctant to spend any money on advertising and promotion — and the public hardly gets to hear of it.

Spaniards in the wholesale and retail business also make the mistake of wanting huge profit margins — and the prices at the market can be stratospheric.

About 25 years ago there was the case of a French gourmet potato arriving in Palma decades after it had been a success in France and England.

A few of Palma’s top cooks used it and it was available at a couple of the up-market stalls at the Olivar and Santa Catalina markets, but few people bought it because the price was extremely high.

That potato is called La Ratte (the name is registered) and 25 years later supermarkets had it at €2.78 a kilo — still somewhat expensive, but a price many of us were willing to pay for this rather splendid spud.

La Ratte is a most interesting little potato. Unlike most other varieties, it doesn’t come from Peru or one of the other Andean countries.

The European Data Bank of Cultivated Potatoes says La Ratte originated in France and Denmark in the 1880s — but in 1934 it disappeared because of seed degeneration.

A French agronomist called Jean-Pierre Clot rediscovered the plant in the Swiss Alps in 1965 and started to grow it on his farm at Marne-la-Vallee near Paris.

When he finally had a good crop he realised it was a rather special potato with a lovely buttery texture and tasting of chestnuts and hazelnuts.

He then had a good idea for promoting the potato: he sent a batch to some of the best cooks in France, all of them with three Michelin stars.

When the French nouvelle cuisine got under way at the start of the 1970s, the top Michelin cooks rejected the potato because one of their innovations was to cook vegetables for seconds rather than minutes — and you can’t do that with potatoes.

But the A-list cooks who received a sack of La Ratte gave an open-armed welcome to the new potato because they immediately saw the potential of this unusual spud with its butter-like texture and subtle flavours.

The first one to use La Ratte was Joel Robuchon, who had 32 Michelin stars at his various restaurants when he died three years ago.

He made a potato purée, adding 250 grs of butter to a half kilo of La Ratte — which already had a buttery texture. It immediately became one of his most famous flagship dishes.

A few of Palma’s top cooks used La Ratte when it arrived 25 years ago, including Jacinto del Valle when he was cook and co-owner of the Porto Pi restaurant.

La Ratte served as an inspiration for doing a variation on the brandade de morue, the Provençal classic of salt cod pounded to a paste to which olive is added until everything becomes a thick emulsion.

Jacinto used La Ratte in place of the salt cod, pounding the potato flesh until it was velvety smooth and then slowly stirring in a well flavoured virgen extra olive oil. The resulting emulsion was used as a base for red mullet fillets briefly seared on a hot plate.

Jacinto also made a very smooth purée to which he added the concentrated juices of roast meats and a dash of soya. It was a delightfully spiky sauce for pinkly grilled entrecôte or roast beef.

When he first introduced me to La Ratte, Jacinto stressed that no matter what recipe it was being used for, it must always be boiled or baked in its jacket to get the best out of its texture and flavours.

Some cooks, however, serve the potato with its skin intact. Jacinto did a dish in which scallops perfumed with vanilla were served atop slices of unpeeled steamed La Ratte.
Jacinto’s creative talent was very much in evidence in another dish: poached eggs with sea urchin eggs and La Ratte.

He made a little pouch out of a piece of cling film and broke in a raw egg. He then added tiny pieces of cooked Ratte and the sea urchin eggs.

The cling film was tied so that it looked like a little money bag with the egg and the other ingredients trapped inside. It was then put into boiling water until the egg white set.
When the egg was on the plate it looked like a roundish poached egg — the potato pieces and the sea urchin eggs seemed to have disappeared.

But when the diner cut into the egg white, the pieces of Ratte and the sea urchin eggs were suddenly there. It was a little master work from a master cook.

Creative cooks in London and New York City also served the potatoes simmered in their jackets and then mashed with a fork without peeling them. It was all the rage for a while.
I relish some boiled La Ratte, stripped on their jacket, drizzled with virgen extra olive oil, sprinkled with a few flakes of Maldon salt and a dusting of freshly ground black pepper. For maximum enjoyment, eat them with your fingers as if they were chips.

La Ratte is also memorable when boiled, peeled, lightly mashed with a fork, drizzled with virgen extra olive oil and used for a slightly underdone omelette made in the usual tortilla española way.

The potato was quickly registered as La Ratte du Touquet and was given that name because its ovoid shape, thick at one end and tapering off, gives it a rat-like look.
La Ratte was available in England as soon as the French cooks started to use it, but retailers were sure the name would be a turn-off for the general public.

Safeway was the first to give it a new name. The supermarket chain’s executives found a taste of asparagus in La Ratte and decided to put it on their shelves as Asparges — the French word for asparagus.

I was never able to detect any reminiscence of asparagus in La Ratte. Right from the start my data bank of flavours came up with chestnuts and hazelnuts. But that’s the sense of taste for you: it’s all very subjective.

Marks & Spencer didn’t go for the Ratte name either and they also looked around for something that would appeal to their customers.

The potato’s elongated shape could recall a gherkin and a French nickname for an early gherkin is cornichon hatif. That suited M&S nicely and their customers got to know the potato as French Cornichon.

But to paraphrase Shakespeare: that which we call La Ratte would be any other name be just as splendid of texture and subtle of flavour.