Forget fettucine - spuds remain the smash hit here

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The Independent Culture
YOU CAN keep your fettuccine Alfredo and spaghettini alla puttanesca; give us back our spuds.

This is the view of the great British public, judging by a report from the Office of National Statistics which reveals that in the past two years spending on macaroni, rigatoni, tortellini, vermicelli ("small worms" in Italian) and any other kind of pasta you care to mention has gone down by 15 per cent, while sales of the friendly (and more pronounceable) potato have soared by 35 per cent. For all the urgings of food trendies that Mediterranean cuisine is not only le dernier cri in gastro-fashion but also damn good for your innards, Mr and Mrs Great Britain are having none of it.

Since it was first encountered in the New World - by the Spanish in Colombia in 1557, forget Raleigh - the spud has swept to and fro according to the whims of taste. An early peak came in the early 17th century, when Shakespeare ascribed aphrodisiac qualities to the swollen tuber in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

In the 18th century, the potato reached its zenith as a fashion accessory when Marie Antoinette adorned her dress with the plant's rather attractive white flowers. In this century, the spud has occupied a more lowly role. Generations of British school children have toiled listlessly with mountains of mash, treating it more as an alternative to Plasticine than as anything edible.

Its low point came in 1976 when the great drought pushed potato prices through the roof. Years before Antonio Carluccio appeared on the box, children were introduced to the joys of pasta. The classic Italian stand- by (macaroni is referred to in Genovese document from 1279 - the idea that Marco Polo brought it back from China is baloney) proved to be much to the taste of the young, despite its comparative lack of plasticity.

So what has prompted the return of the spud? One possible reason is that King Edward, Kerr's Pink, Desiree, etc, have been taken up by the great gastronomic panjandrums who rule London's poshest eating haunts. Saff mash - an infusion of saffron in mashed spuds - was a "signature dish" that made the reputation of Simon Hopkinson, now the incomparable food writer of this paper's Saturday magazine. Another chef imbued his mash with a sprinkling of caviar. But one maestro at a stratospherically priced joint in St James's went a tad too far when he added slivers of boiled potato to his luxurious mash. The result, of course, was lumpy mash. The restaurant folded shortly afterwards.

Whether the influence of these innovators has percolated to the kitchens of, say, West Hartlepool or Heckmondwike is debatable. But it can be said with some assurance that the most celebrated of celeb cooks will have played a significant part in restoring the spud to the table.

Last Monday's repeat of Delia Smith's How to Cook on BBC2 was entirely devoted to the potato. The Blessed Delia showed her audience how to make crunchy roast potatoes with saffron ("not too much, just a hint"), mash with three mustards, mash with green-parsley mash, the perfect baked potato ("add a generous amount of butter and watch it melt into the clouds of fluffiness") and some intolerably tempting, oven-roasted chunky chips.

The series was first shown last year when the clipboard corps from the Office of National Statistics was busily probing our dietary fads. No wonder the spud has sprung back to favour. It's like the time in 1990 when liquid glucose disappeared from every chemist's shop as the whole nation was swept up by the compulsion to make Delia's notorious Truffle Torte. Viewed in this light, the soaring popularity of the spud should come as no surprise. What's more remarkable is that a single potato remains on any supermarket shelf in the country.