Ozette fingerling potatoes have recently achieved minor celebrity status. They have been named to the "Ark of Taste" by the Slow Food movement and a Google search for "Ozette potatoes" returns with 761 hits. They might be rare but they are not unknown.
It is generally accepted that Ozette is a very old if not the oldest North American potato. They have been grown by generations of Makah Indians and play an important role in their culture. Its history is repeated nearly word-for-word by numerous sources. The Slow Food website is typical:
"The Ozette came from Peru by way of Spanish explorers to the Makah
Indians at Neah Bay , Washington in the late 1700s. The Ozette is also
known by the names, Anna Cheeka's Ozette and Makah Ozette…..The
potato has an earthy and nutty flavor that is similar to the taste
sensed in cooked dry beans. The flesh is firm and the texture is very
creamy. …..The Ozette is grown predominantly in private gardens for
specialty menus and for personal consumption."
The description is largely accurate but the 1700s Peruvian connection is in doubt. Ozette's glamorous history has attracted the interest of potato geneticists who have used gene mapping in an attempt to trace its history. One group at the 2005 Plant & Animal Genome Conference seemed to deliver good news/bad news. The good news is that Ozettes are substantially different from modern potato strains developed in the 18th century. The bad news is that they aren't closely related to native Andean potatoes either. If the 1700 Peru story were true one would have expected such a linkage. The one strong but ambiguous genetic hit of their findings was Ozettes were closely related to a very old potato grown by native Alaskans called "Maria."
Happily one doesn’t need a degree in genetics to see that Ozette potatoes are something different. The tubers are small and although irregularly shaped they are roughly longer than wide with blunt ends. Sometimes botanists refer to this shape as "lingot-shaped" or in French "ingot d'or" suggesting the similarity to gold nuggets. Occasionally you will find tubers that have fused creating a "Y" or "V" shaped spud. The surface of an Ozette tuber is blemished by numerous shallow triangular shaped 'eyes' giving it a wavy appearance. A single Ozette plant will yield tubers of different sizes and shapes. This characteristic is deeply frowned upon by the commercial potato industry which classifies Ozette as having "very poor grade out."
Poor grades are in the eye of the beholder. In the garden Ozettes are a gem of a plant. They are tough and will grow in good times and in bad. Their yield might be modest and the tubers irregular but they will produce enough for the table and a sufficiency for planting next year.
At the table Ozette fingerlings have many enthusiasts who claim it to be the “best tasting fingerling.” Personally I find that descriptions of "the best tasting potato" are like reading about “the best tasting wine” but with a vocabulary of four adjectives instead of hundreds. "Nutty," "buttery," "creamy" and "potato-y" are about the extent of the potato world’s vocabulary. My suggestion is to try a freshly dug Ozette that has been perfectly roasted. As you slowly savor its taste you might consider adding a fifth adjective to your personal potato lexicon: "perfect."
These Ozette fingerlings were grown organically in my garden in the Valley of the Moon. They were planted in mid-March and they are being dug now.