The Dutch are my kind of people. There are about 16 million of them living in a country about the size of Maryland. Their birth rate is below the level needed to maintain the population so they are voluntarily thinning the herd. But even more impressive is the factoid that the Dutch have more than 150 varieties of potatoes with some presence in their produce markets. To my knowledge you have to go back to the original stomping ground of the potato in South America to find that many potato varieties (Peru has ~3,000). Compare that with the United States where 90% of our potatoes come from fewer than twelve varieties. And need we mention that Americans are producing far more little Americans than we need or who are welcome?
But this missive is about potatoes and specifically an heirloom Dutch variety called “Bintje” (Pronounced “ben-jee”). “Bintje” or “Miss Bintje” as it was known at its introduction in 1910 was the work of a botanist schoolmaster named Kornelis Friesland. Master Friesland used potatoes as a hands-on teaching tool in his classroom to illustrate the principles of plant genetics and cross breeding. He named each resulting hybrid potato after one of his children of which he had nine. But when he produced the tenth hybrid potato in ~1905 (a cross between Munstersen and Fransen) he found inspiration in his best pupil, Miss Bintje Jansma. And one might say that the rest of the story is “potato history.”
Today Bintje potatoes are the most widely grown yellow-fleshed potato in the world. Farmers appreciate Bintje’s productivity and its tolerance to a wide range of soils. Commercial produce firms like Bintje for its storage ability and its good looks. Even on close inspection a Bintje is smooth and well rounded. Plus its skin has a silk-like finish. But where Bintje truly excels is in the kitchen. Its starch solid content of ~20% puts it in the middle of the ‘wax vs flour’ spectrum and thus they can play either role. And most important is that the flavor of a Bintje is exceptional. Some describe it as having a unique light, nut-like flavor. I don’t taste that note but I agree that it is an exceptional spud.
Despite Bintje’s world-wide reputation it is largely unknown in America. Much of that may be due to America’s long-standing “potato color barrier.” Until a Canadian university invented the Yukon Gold in the 1970s the American public wouldn’t look twice at a spud unless it had snow-white flesh. But Yukon got a toehold in our market when restaurant chefs were intrigued by its “unusual look.” Growers liked Yukon because they were huge (Remember that Americans nearly always think “Big food is better food.”) And Yukon’s ultra-short growing season allow them to be planted nearly all the way North to the permafrost. But the thorn-in-the-side issue with Yukon Gold is the taste. Yukon is a pretty average-tasting potato. And that’s on a good day.
So why hasn’t the exceptional Bintje beaten the pants off of Yukon Gold here in America? It might be the size/productivity issues. Or perhaps it is the economic phenomena of market dominance. I don’t know the answer to that mystery but I do know what the outcome would be if anyone does a potato tasting throw down between that yellow thing from Vancouver and the delicate, delightful Miss Bintje.
These Bintje potatoes were organically grown in my garden in the Valley of the Moon.
Vegetables of Interest, 2008