A magical combination of ingredients and one of them is potato

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What are the world’s best potato dishes? Niki Bezzant asks in her latest Potato Chat Blog…

I’ve written here before about the marvel that is the Tartiflette – an extravaganza of potato, cream, onion and garlic topped with a round of gooey washed-rind Reblochon, a cheese from northern France. At an event recently I mentioned this plate of goodness to the French Ambassador to New Zealand, and was surprised to meet with a fairly negative response; she was not a fan of this dish at all, saying it was not a good thing to do with that cheese, and the whole dish was too rich and heavy.

I stand by my initial enthusiasm, however. Yes, tartiflette is rich and heavy. It’s meant to be eaten in the mountains after a day of alpine activity. And tartiflette is a great example of a tried-and-true, magic combination of ingredients which has its expression in many, many food cultures around the world: potatoes and dairy.

When you survey the great potato dishes of the world, this theme comes up again and again.  It’s hard to escape, In fact.

We have the classics such as Duchess potatoes: a puree of mashed potato, egg, butter and salt, piped and baked. There’s potato gratin (or dauphinoise or scalloped potato): sliced potatoes baked with cream, butter and cheese.

Quebec in Canada has Poutine, the famous dish of French fries topped with cheese curd and gravy ( a lot nicer than it sounds).

Italy has gnocchi or gnudi; the former made with potato; the latter made with ricotta, both typically topped with cheese.

Even Finland has a potato and dairy dish: Riivinkropsu, or grated potato casserole; a rather delicious-sounding bake of grated potato, milk, cream, egg and cheese.

Why do we love this combination so?

Starchy potato and protein-filled dairy, when cooked, pack a hefty punch of umami. Umami is the ‘fifth taste’; as well as sweet, salty, bitter and sour, we also taste umami: a sense of savoury deliciousness. It’s what makes our mouths water at the aroma of grilled meat or crunchy fries. Scientifically it describes the taste of glutamates and nucleotides in food. MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a common and much-maligned glutamate, but glutamate also occurs naturally in lots of tasty foods.

Now the weather is getting colder, it’s a good time to get into the glutamates and rediscover the joy of the magical potato/dairy combo. A good place to start would be a classic dish of scalloped potato.

I’m not quite ready for tartiflette – I think the temperature needs to go down another ten degrees or so – but I am about to experiment (in the name of research of course) with my first Riivinkropsu.