Potatoes, Anyone?

You can tell it's spring when you hear the neighbors' tractors in the fields nearby and see them going slowly up and down a field, with half the family following, bending over. For some the signs of spring may be the first daffodils or new grass blades or buds on trees. Here, the first sign is when the potatoes are planted.

It's generally the first planting of the year, but it's prepared much earlier, around January. First, the seed potatoes have to be bought and spread out in a cool, shadowy area. Then, about a week or two before planting, fertilizer has to be taken to the field, where it is spread out. A few days before the potatoes have to be cut up, leaving an eye in each piece, from which the plant will grow. And, of course, the weather has to cooperate from the beginning, but the potatoes can't be put in much later than the beginning of April for them to grow correctly. So some years spring comes on rainy days and you see the neighbors becoming drenched as the clouds boil over.  

Putting the potatoes in is an operation that requires several sets of hands. First, the person on the tractor, laying open the furrows. Then, a person at the head of the field with a hoe, digging where the tractor has to begin the furrow. Depending on the length of the field, anywhere from two to four people have to walk up and down the furrows with pails in their hands, placing a piece of potato about a foot away from the previous piece. Then, generally, there's another person with a rake, raking over the furrows that have already been planted and covered, making sure no potato is peeking above the soil, calling out to the crows to be pulled out. Once upon a time, neighbors helped neighbors and were helped in return. Now, it's generally just family who will expect to take some potatoes as payment when they're harvested. But not so long ago tractors were still a novelty and the planting was done with the help of two oxen and a hand plow. That was an all day job.

When people think of national foods, they think of the potato being an Irish dish, but that's not completely true. Here in Galicia the potato began substituting wheat and chestnuts at the end of the sixteenth century and by the middle of the seventeenth was already the priniciple food in most people's diets. Most popular dishes here are accompanied by or made with potatoes. The Caldo Gallego has potatoes, so does caldeirada, a fish and potato stew. The Spanish tortilla is made with potatoes and eggs. Most people will eat potatoes as an accompaniment instead of eating pasta or rice. There are very few households where potatoes are not eaten. We go through between five and ten kilos a week ourselves.

So, having already put in our potatoes and listening to our neighbor's tractor in the fields behind our house, I know spring has definitely arrived. And that we can enjoy some home-grown potatoes at the end of summer.


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