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Fabled Heirloom Potatoes from the High Andes

In the High Andes, two interesting varieties of potato, Yema de Huevo potato and the clay potato potato, are the most valued and sought after by connoisseurs in South American cookery.

| Winter 2013-2014

  • The rare Yema de Huevo potatoes are about the same diameter as an egg yolk, hence the name in Spanish. With such an intense color, the potato is very rich in carotenoids, a nutritional plus that has made it almost iconic among vegetarians and health-food enthusiasts in South America.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • Like Yema de Huevo, the flowers of Papa Chaco are colored, but in this case they are pale lilac with a white stripe or “star” in the center.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • Papa Chaco sports the most extraordinary lavender-rose skin with marbled rose-purple flesh; these colors are especially intense when the potatoes are freshly dug. The tubers are long and somewhat pointed on both ends, but they can also curve into a half-moon shape when the tubers are long—up to 8 inch in some cases. Gardeners can interplant between the rows of Papa Chaco: lettuce for example, or small radishes, mustard, even spinach. This works especially well if Papa Chaco is planted late (it is considered a late variety) because it seems to tuberize better in September-October with declining day length.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo
  • The new leaves of the Papa Chaco potato are tinged with deep black-green and remain that color as they mature.
    Photo by Rob Cardillo

It probably goes without saying that potato aficionados are a breed unto themselves, especially when it comes to seeking out the most exotic varieties of spuds.

Then again, there are potatoes, and there are potatoes. Anyone who grows heirloom potatoes knows firsthand that the flavor of these wonderful old-time tubers is as varied and complex as any common fruit—apples and grapes for example, and if there is a potato Olympus somewhere in the high Andes of South America, then certainly the Yema de Huevo (“egg yolk”) potato and the Papa Chaco (“clay potato”) potato belong among that halcyon few. Hands down, these two varieties are among the most sought after and highly valued by connoisseurs of South American cookery not only for their unique color and flavor, but also because they have so easily adapted themselves to the classic national cuisines of high-altitude kitchens from Colombia to Peru.

Egg Yolk Potato

First, let’s talk about the Yema de Huevo. Perfectly round with brilliant saffron yellow skin and flesh, these potatoes are also about the same diameter as an egg yolk, hence the name in Spanish. In the native Quechua language of Peru it is called chaucha. And as you might imagine, with such an intense color, the potato is very rich in carotenoids, a nutritional plus that has made it almost iconic among vegetarians and health-food enthusiasts in South America. Unfortunately, this rare potato has not been available in the United States until quite recently. 

The good news is that growers in different parts of the country are presently giving it a trial to see how well it does in our northern latitudes, since many Andean potatoes are sensitive to day length. This sensitivity is due to the fact that in their native homelands, they are planted in regions close to the equator, and while the potatoes may be growing in high-altitude microclimates where cool, moist weather is the norm, day and night are about equal, and this affects tuberization.

I have experienced this affect firsthand: After planting Peruanita, a Peruvian potato of Inca origin, it literally melted in the ground. My Pennsylvania soil was too warm too soon and the sunlight too intense (I am on the same latitude as Madrid, Spain). Getting potatoes to acclimate to these differences can require many years of selective breeding. Fortunately, that work was already done for us with Yema de Huevo.

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