Chiloé: On the origin of the spuds

In 1834, Darwin noted the astonishing array of potatoes on Chiloé, the
genetic source of 90 per cent of the world's varieties. But the island off Chile
has been slow to cash in on its gastronomic heritage – until now, reports Nick
Rider

"Do you know we have over 400 kinds of potatoes?" asks Pato, a tour guide on
the island of Chiloé, off southern Chile. Many other Chilotes (Chiloé's
inhabitants) let drop the same point, in the same slightly bemused way. Recently
they've been able to add that DNA studies by universities from Chile to
Wisconsin have also shown the island is the potato's global home, the original
genetic source of more than 90 per cent of all those spuds around the world
today (though argument goes on between Peru and Chile over where potato
domestication first gained pace).

The astonishing variety of Chiloé's indigenous potatoes was noted by Charles Darwin, who visited in 1834. As to the 400 varieties, Andrés Contreras, one of Chile's leading experts in the field, has identified 286, but many have been lost over the years, and there could easily be more.

So, having heard about papas Chilotas (Chiloé potatoes), one might expect they would be prominently displayed, as a local treasure. Not at all. Instead, at first sight, Chiloé's potato wealth seems almost bizarrely elusive.

Chiloé – the main island, or Isla Grande, commonly just called Chiloé – and its archipelago are a kind of Spanish-speaking Hebrides, long isolated from the rest of Chile, with their own quirky blend of indigenous, Hispanic and other traditions. Jesuit missionaries sprinkled the island with strange timber-Baroque churches. It's very green, rainy and windy, covered in thick, boggy forest, fields and yellow gorse, introduced by 19th-century German immigrants as windbreaks. The ocean side is mostly empty forest, crags, dunes and penguin colonies; to the east, low tides leave great swathes of marsh and mud. Castro, the island capital, has a remote, windswept appeal, and is best known for its palafitos, traditional houses built on poles around the shoreline, which have become slightly trendy, with a few boutique palafito B&Bs, mellow restaurants and cafés. Palafito 1326, where I stayed, has lovely broad balconies for watching the tidal flow and the seabirds mud-picking for crabs and worms.

In one palafito restaurant, Mar y Canela, I found generically identified papas nativas, or "native potatoes" on the menu, with grilled pork. They were long, thin, purplish-black, dense in texture and slightly nutty in flavour, maybe with a hint of artichoke. A few other places offered native-potato dishes, usually with the same kind. But where were the rest of them? A Castro mini-market had none, only routine spuds. When I asked again, I was told to try the Feria Campesina, Castro's sprawling food-and-everything market, which is busiest on Sundays.

I found it on the edge of town, in a giant shed amid a car park staked out with stalls selling hefty cardigans, boots and car parts. Inside was a food market, fabulously idiosyncratic, even by Latin American standards. Great ranks of gleaming salmon – Chiloé's biggest modern export – and less identifiable fish and seafood were surrounded by spectacular fruit, unearthly giant garlic and Chiloé's most particular delicacies: seaweed of several kinds and strings of dried sea creatures. And, finally, Chilote potatoes. However, yet again, the ladies who ran the veg stalls divided their stocks just two ways, between papas normales (bog-standard international varieties) and others all referred to with the usual vagueness as papas nativas, in mixed bags, with many different varieties – black, red, green, yellow, in all sorts of odd shapes, some like great vegetable chorizos – all jumbled up together.

In any Mediterranean country, any such unique, natural gastronomic-cultural speciality would long ago have had some sort of appellation contrôlée, carefully labelling every variety and proclaiming its virtues. Beyond Chiloé's remoteness, the low profile of its native potatoes – many rich in antioxidants and vitamins – is due to the patterns of commercial agriculture, big business in modern Chile. For years, farmers were told by official experts to ditch them and plant international varieties, as the only ones for which there was any demand.

"Chilote potatoes," says Andrés Contreras, were seen as something "for poor people". Many farm families continued to grow papas nativas, but only for themselves or strictly local sales. Hence, despite scientists' pleas for the preservation of this genetic treasure-house, production withered.

Except that, contrary to my first impressions, things actually seem to be getting better. "Ten or 15 years ago you would hardly have seen any," says Carlos Venegas of Chiloé's Centro de Educación y Tecnología seed bank, when I mention the scarcity of native potatoes. After 30 years working in the area, often as a rearguard action, he feels a new optimism. In the last four or five years, officialdom has finally taken on board that Chiloé's potatoes represent a unique, premium asset.

In 2012 the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) declared Chiloé one of its "Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems" or GIAHS (which sounds much better in its Spanish acronym, SIPAM). New channels are being created to market native potatoes in Chile's cities, and possibly abroad (with varieties duly separated out, and named). Information is being gathered from Chilote cooks on the culinary uses of each variety. Native-potato patches are now growing rather than shrinking. And chefs from sophisticated Santiago restaurants have hosted tastings and are experimenting with this new-ancient product.

Andrés Contreras remains sceptical of the readiness of Chiloé's small farmers to become gourmet food producers: "You've seen Chiloé … life's very placid, nothing is done in a hurry." But he accepts that foreign recognition has stirred new interest. Perhaps what they need now is for some international celebrity chef to make the world's oldest potatoes the latest foodie fad. µ

Travel essentials

Getting there

There are no direct flights between the UK and Chile. Iberia (0870 609 0500; iberia.com) flies to Santiago via Madrid, TAM (020 8741 2005; tam.com) flies from Heathrow via Sao Paulo.

From Santiago, LAN (0845 098 0140; lan.com) has direct flights to Chiloé's small airport, but there are more frequent and cheaper flights from all parts of Chile to Puerto Montt on the mainland. Sky Airline (00 56 2 2352 5600; skyairline.cl) is a good low-cost local carrier. From Puerto Montt there are frequent buses to Castro via the Chiloé car ferry at Pargua.

Staying there

Palafito 1326, Castro (00 56 65 253 0053; palafito1326.cl) has B&B doubles from 48,000 Chilean peso (£57).

Seeing there

Palafito Trip (00 56 09 9884 95522; palafitotrip.cl) offers treks, horse-riding, kayaking, fishing excursions and tours to penguin colonies around the island.

More information

chile.travel

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution