I ARRIVED in the agricultural co-operative this morning to be greeted by a sea of elderly cloth capped gentlemen all chatting away excitedly. By Monchique standards the atmosphere was buzzing, by co-operative standards it was positively electric. I quickly located the source of this animation to be the arrival of the new season’s seed potatoes.
Certified seed potatoes cost a little more than ordinary potatoes, but they are guaranteed to be virus-free and are well worth paying the extra for.
You can plant potatoes in almost any month in the Algarve, but you need to be sure the young plants will not get hit by a hard frost. This can kill off the plant and, in severe cases, leave the potatoes themselves damaged. Having said that, our frosts are usually quite mild and, unless you live in a renowned frost pocket, you can risk planting them almost anytime.
Most of my neighbours sow their potatoes from late December through to late February and there is a very good reason for this. An early January sowing will emerge from the soil at the beginning of February, growing steadily until they are ready for harvesting towards the end of April. In a good year, we get a good mixture of sunshine and rain during these months, leaving the gardener to worry about weeding and little else. When you come to dig the potatoes, April is cool enough to make the task manageable.
The problem is storage – the warm summer months are far from ideal for storing potatoes. To get over the storage problem, I plant a couple of rows every few months, but the watering and digging in the summer can still be a little overwhelming.
Potatoes – growing them
• Buy seed potatoes from one of the agricultural stores or co-operatives in the Algarve. These stores are often near the fruit and vegetable markets.
• You can place the seed potatoes in a dry place with weak sunlight to encourage them to sprout – this is called chitting. This is not essential, but gets them off to an early start.
• On a sunny day when the soil is moist but not waterlogged, dig a trench about 15cm deep. Put in as much well rotted manure as you have. Put the potatoes in, about 30cm apart from each other, and cover with soil. Trenches can be spaced around 60cm, one from the other.
• When the young plants reach about 25cm, pull some earth up around the plant, weeding as you go. This is called earthing up and keeps the young potatoes protected from sunlight which can turn them green, making them inedible. Water in dry weather.
• Watch out for blight (milde da batata). In warm damp weather, blight can take hold and devastate a crop. The only prevention I know is a chemical that can be purchased from agricultural stores and sprayed onto the leaves.
Harvesting and storage
The potatoes are ready for digging when the foliage turns brown. Carefully dig quite a distance from the plant, lifting the whole plant. Try to get all the potatoes out or you will have a potato patch there forever more.
Potatoes should be stored in a cool, dry place. My neighbours store them in layers of fern to allow the air to circulate around them. There is an additional problem of an insect that attacks them in storage. Once more, there is a chemical solution in the form of a powder, which the potatoes can be dusted with. The only alternative is to grow fewer and stagger them throughout the year.
No one needs to be told how to eat a potato. However, I do think we are all guilty of getting into certain habits and simply preparing foods in the way we always have, especially potatoes. When I first grew potatoes in Portugal, my neighbours were aghast at the ‘butter and mint’ thing us English do. They suggested that I drain boiled new potatoes (I leave the skins on, they don’t), cover them in a good drenching of olive oil, lemon and salt. They really are delicious that way, perhaps a little healthier and just as good hot or cold. What I would suggest you do is be adventurous, look up a recipe to make the most of all your hard work.