It’s a little after seven in the morning, and the cool air from the night still lingers to make our work easier before the stifling mid-day heat arrives. Jaime lowers the spade-shaped blade that hangs off the back of his tractor into the dirt, and as he puts it into gear, the wheels grab hold to move forward and the blade cuts a swath into the earth not unlike the bow of a ship that ploughs through water, but leaving a wake of dark soil that brings to the surface a treasure of starchy tubers: potatoes, large and small, both red and white.

Credits: Supplied Image;

They’re pushed to the left and right of the cut the plough-blade makes as Jaime moves the tractor to the end of the long row that was planted back in March, one row of many in this morning’s field and in other fields. Today’s field is Patricia’s, Jaimie’s sister, both of whom are the children of Elisa, who one might say is the matriarch of our little street. Her field will be next week. Two days ago, it was my field, and the next days will be Licinio’s and Aldina’s, who are cousins. Regardless of family, friends, and neighbours, we all work together as one to gather the potato harvest.

Rural Portugal

In the rural areas of central Portugal, the rhythm of life is dictated by many things, but one of them is the different months when the variety of crops that are harvested collectively become the agenda for the days ahead. In September, it’s the grapes for wine-making. In October, it’s the olives for olive oil. For many, those particular commodities bring the trendy idea of wealth and investment to mind. Needless to say, fortunes have been made from the well-marketed vintage-reserve vine fruit and the olives that produce top-shelf, extra-virgin oil (as disappointing as it may sound for some, our own yields from those bounties within our community circle go no further than our kitchen tables, but the less things one needs to buy at the market, the better). The potato, however, doesn’t quite have the luxury appeal that would attract the kind of people looking to be featured in the latest edition of Town and Country or Condé Nast Magazine. For the most part, the potato has always been underrated and considered the mainstay food of peasants. Regardless, it’s among the most important crop harvests for us, and for the Portuguese generally, as it has been a staple of Portuguese cooking for centuries.

Indeed, the potato is a natural fit for Portuguese cuisine. At the most fundamental level, it’s impossible to imagine, much less consider, enjoying any codfish recipe without the potato. One shivers at the thought of Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, or Brás, or even Pasteis de Bacalhau, without the potato. The exquisite Portuguese traditional Chanfana is faithfully complemented with the potato. The famous, and most consumed, Portuguese soup of Caldo Verde wouldn’t be what it is without its potato-puree . Leitāo, or even sardines, without the potato would be somewhat disappointing to say the least. When Elisa serves up lunch or dinner, you can be sure the boiled potatoes will be on the table.

Potatoes in Portugal

How the potato got to Portugal isn’t a complicated matter, though in some measure a bit disputed. According to most sources, it appeared rather late on the Portuguese palate, around 1760 even though it landed on the continent much earlier. The English claim they introduced the potato to Europe via the intrepid buccaneer Sir Francis Drake who acquainted it with Queen Elizabeth. However, history clearly points to Spain when the expanding world was divided up between the empires of the Spanish Crown of Castile and the Kingdom of Portugal at the Treaty of Tortillas in 1494. The colonial territory claims of Spain, such as Peru, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia, is where the potato had originally been cultivated and was already being grown. Unlike all the pillaged gold the Spanish carried back with them to the Old World, the potato was an appropriation everyone could enjoy, and indeed their Iberian neighbours, the Portuguese, embraced it with unconditional fervour.

1798 was a pivotal year for the potato in Portugal, with Queen D. Maria I formally decreeing governmental incentives to produce the tuber in the Azores, and Teresa de Sousa Maciel, considered by the gastronomist Virgílio Nogueiro Gomes to be “the first great potato grower”, being awarded the gold medal by the Science Academy of Lisbon for her work. By the late 18th Century, potato consumption was being well documented in Portugal, with books such as Lucas Rigaud’s book of recipes (1780) starting things off, and Sousa Maciel’s own son, Viscount of Vilarinho do Sāo Romāo, later publishing his “Practical Manual of Growing Potatoes” in 1841, as well as his book of recipes, “The Art of the Cook and Confectioner”.


The varieties of potato that take well to the Portuguese soil are apparently Soprano and Lady Amarilla, but I wouldn’t know the difference. Whatever potatoes were coming up from the rich earth in our collective fields here in central Portugal were fine by me. I wouldn’t bother asking Elisa, my family-neighbour and agronomist mentor par excellence, what variety was put in the ground back in March. She comes from Portuguese roots (pun intended) whose families have worked the land for generations. Most likely, she would just say they’re the same as last year’s, which were additionally stored and cut to plant for this year, as a portion of this year’s crop will go to the next planting.

Until that happens though, there’s going to be plenty of potatoes for everyone in our very small corner of the world to eat. In a cool and dark ground-floor room of my house where I tend to sleep during the hot summer months, a corner is piled high with more potatoes than I can think to ever eat in a year. “You’ll need them for the winter.” Elisa tells me. A winter I’m hoping, with potatoes in mind, will be longer than usual. Life could be a lot worse without the potato.