ONE of the women on the garden tour I hosted recently to Europe was nicknamed ''Foodie Ann'' for her gastronomic pursuits.
She has eaten at some top restaurants, including British chef Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck, and Dinner, his new restaurant in Knightsbridge, which required booking two months ahead from Australia. The next morning we salivated as she elaborated on the amazing dishes she had eaten. But the highlight for this gardening gourmand was Blumenthal's triple-cooked chips - crisp and crunchy on the outside, fluffy, melt-in-the mouth inside. Divine, she said.
Such is the power of the humble spud - in this case, aided and abetted by Blumenthal's culinary expertise - to be the star turn on a dinner plate.
According to Wikipedia, the annual diet of the average global citizen in the first decade of the 21st century included about 33 kilograms of potato. That's not surprising because potatoes go with just about everything, especially in winter, when we crave comfort food.
What could be better than piping hot, fluffy mashed potatoes gleaming with a knob of butter, or steamed new, boiled potatoes, such as Jersey Royals - reputedly the Queen's favourite - skin left on and sprinkled with parsley.
Solanum tuberosum was discovered in the Andes about 8000 years ago and the Incas of Peru cultivated different varieties, many of which, thanks to the Spaniards, found their way to Europe in the 16th century.
Sadly, the Irish relied on only one variety, so when potato blight struck, the country's entire crop was decimated, resulting in the Irish potato famine of 1845.
Full of starch, they were a cheap source of nutrition in the Industrial Revolution. However, potatoes have risen from a mere staple or an adjunct to a meal.
Many greengrocers now stock up to 10 varieties, with specialist potato stallholders at the Prahran and South Melbourne markets stocking more than twice that amount of old favourites.
While many people grow their own vegies and herbs, potatoes often don't make it into the smaller home plot because they are thought to need too much room. But this is a myth because only about one square metre of space is required to grow potatoes for home consumption, Clive Blazey from Digger's Seeds says.
In his book The Australian Vegetable Garden, he suggests growing them in a cylinder of chicken wire held upright with three or four star pickets, then planting three or four seed potatoes at the base of the cylinder and letting them make their way upwards. Deep pots such as wine barrels are another suggestion.
Potatoes hate frost (it can kill the tops completely), so if you're in a frost-prone area, planting is restricted to the warmer months.
Tubers (or seed potatoes) are available in winter and spring. Make sure they are certified free of viruses and weigh 30-60 grams (a three-kilo bag of certified seed potatoes should provide 50-60 plants). Plant 10 centimetres deep when the soil temperature reaches 15 degrees.
Spread out tubers in a shady spot for a week or two before planting to allow young sprouts to green or harden. Plant 30-40 centimetres apart in furrows containing friable soil and a scattering of fertiliser, cover with soil, then rake the surface level. Sprouts emerge in about three or four weeks.
''New'' potatoes can be dug up before the plants wither; harvest ''old'' potatoes when the plants have died down.
Most varieties fall into floury or waxy categories. The latter ''new'' potatoes are suitable for salads, casseroles and soups. Floury or ''old'' potatoes have a fluffy texture when cooked, making them ideal for roasting, mashing and frying.