Spuds

Every year in early autumn, you can see Latvians gathering all around the countryside for a special collective working bee - the potato harvest. I have never really understood how it all gets coordinated - it's not written in the newspaper, or advertised on the radio, but somehow everyone knows that THIS is the weekend for potato picking. Farmers gather together scores of relatives and everyone goes out on the field to dig up the fields and fill up large sacks with starchy tuber goodness. Driving in the country on that particular weekend you see people toiling away, with lots of sacks on the side of the field. This has always mystified me, how everyone seems to agree on exactly the same day/s to do the work, and I have always felt a bit of envy because I have never had a chance to take part in this autumn tradition. Over the years I have hinted to my neighbour, who has never offered for us to take part in digging up her massive field. I don't know why, perhaps it is because each helper usually gets to take home a sack of potatoes?


So this year, my ambitious mum decided that we also needed a field of potatoes. She and Normunds, our trusty farmhand helper planted a modest field in springtime (around 50 rows, which is small for most locals), and we have watched the potato plants growing this summer, concerned for colorado beetles (which didn't appear), the weeds and lack of rain. When you consider the low commercial price of "Latvia's second bread", you may wonder why bother to plant your own field - but there's something about growing them yourself. I've always thought that home-grown potatoes taste better than store-bought ones, probably totally psychosomatic, or maybe because home-grown spuds are usually completely organic? Our ones this year certainly are - no pesticides or weed killers touched our field, that's for sure.

As the summer progressed and things got cooler, our thoughts turned to the potato harvest. Speaking to a few friends, I was alarmed around a month ago to hear that their parents in the east and north of Latvia had dug up their potatoes early this year, because of the rain, they were already rotting in the field. Other friends commented that the "word on the street" (at the market) was that potato prices were going to rise sharply at the end of winter, because this year's harvest was small, and of a bad quality. Almost everyone I met, including friends my age and younger, had some extra information on the state of potatoes, the future of the harvest, the dangers ahead, the importance of knowing when to dig... So I turned to our neighbour, a veteran potato grower, strode over to our place and looked at our field, the state of the stalks, dug up a spud, saw that the skin was still able to be rubbed off, and pronounced that they should stay in the ground a couple of weeks longer.

So we waited. I sat in Riga, watching the weather reports, watching the rain coming down, wondering how the spuds were going. And finally, we decided that this was the weekend. It wasn't raining and things had got a whole lot colder. I notified friends who invited us to social events that we were unavailable because we had to pick potatoes, and this was met with knowing nods and understanding comments. "oh, if you've got to dig the potatoes, then of course you can't make it". On the drive out to Kugures you could see the fields full of people with their sacks and pitchforks. We had struck it lucky and picked the right weekend!

Yesterday we started. The ground was rock hard, and getting the spade/pitchfork in under the clump to pull out the spuds was tough. Nevertheless the "buried treasure" aspect of digging overtook all of us, and motivated us onwards, and by the end of the day over half the field had been dug up. Even the boys stuck around for an hour or so, digging up their own plants and scrabbling in the dirt to find all of the spuds. We loaded the potatoes into a wheelbarrow, and spread them out in the shed to dry. All up we dug up around three wheelbarrows full, which will probably not last us all winter, but we all feel bloody proud anyway! In a couple of weeks, after they have dried, they will be put into the basement, in a cool place out of the light, ready to be eaten.

Now I'm feeling a little smug, because I've finally taken part in a potato picking expedition, and there's a bucket full of small and damaged spuds in the kitchen, waiting to be grated for potato pancakes. What more could you ask for?

And this is just a good post-potato-picking shot, taken by Mikus. Love the red apples!

5 Responses so far.

  1. I love this post Mook. We've just planted some strawberries and sweet corn, and I was toying with the idea of getting a late small planting of potatoes in. Reading about your planting and harvest has inspired me to give it a go.
    Enjoy your potatoes!
    Julie

  2. Madeleine says:

    One of the most incredible experiences for me as a Los-Anglino kid when we moved to Aus was going to my maternal grandparents' fruit-and-veg farm in Stanthorpe. Amongst my earliest and most well-remembered experiences on that first visit was helping my Pop dig up the potatoes. In particular, I remember being told not to keep the green ones... :-)

  3. Marite says:

    I'm impressed! Way to go, you (all)!

    I'm such a city girl, yet when I read posts like this, I want so very badly to be a country girl. Maybe I really do belong in suburbia, where I could maybe, have the best of both?

    Also, are you wearing some of my old jeans in the last pic? They look familiar!

  4. Alex says:

    Sounds like a great experience, and interesting to hear about this national tradition. I'm sure there must be a similar one in Ukraine, where there are at least half a dozen words for 'potato'. I remember my grandmother describing different uses of potatoes and how important they are, for a home economics project I had in high school.

    I'm so glad you make potato pancakes - I do too! In fact I have been making them alot this year, and just can't get enough of them (but they NEED sour cream!)

  5. Mook says:

    Julie - good idea! plant even a small patch, it's fun for the kids when you finally dig them up. Also for a while you can just go out in the back yard and dig up a few spuds for dinner that night. Very satisfying!
    Madeleine - good advice about the green ones :)
    Marite - YES. They are your old jeans. I love your old jeans. I always thought Americans were being a bit self-indulgent when they go on and on about "Gap" jeans, but now that I own a (second hand) pair, I totally understand.
    Alex - I am sure Ukranians have these potato picking traditions, and more! You guys are legendary for your potatoes!

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