Like 4pm martinis and exotic animal memes, potatoes have been reassuringly omnipresent during lockdown. When rice, flour and pasta were scarce, they became a carby messiah. I started wearing a rosary of new potatoes and made a devotional Maris Piper candle. The rosary rotted and the candle became a fire hazard, but my potato obsession grew stronger. It’s an addictive vegetable. I quickly found myself eating blitva for lunch, dinner and sometimes breakfast. Nietzsche warned against excessive potato consumption, claiming that it turns people to liquor in his book The Gay Science. Like Ecce Homo, The Gay Science wasn’t what I’d envisaged and I didn’t think much of Nietzsche’s assertion. I was drinking just as much brandy before my spud spree.
With the help of butter, potatoes undergo a glamorous transformation that would make Jonathan van Ness proud. There are even rumours that a stick of butter might replace Bobby as part of the Fab Five. Nora Ephron captured the joy of butter and potatoes better than anyone. Her description of mashed potatoes, eaten in bed whilst “methodically adding a thin cold slice of butter to every forkful”, is enough to make you forget about your underlying heart condition and reach for the Lurpak. I thought that well-made mash was the pinnacle of these two ingredients until I tried pommes Anna. This French classic isn’t particularly well known outside its homeland. It consists of thinly sliced potatoes layered into a cake and baked in the oven. Forget rostis or hash browns, pommes Anna is the final word in crispy, buttery potatoes.
Pommes Anna was created in the mid-nineteenth century by Adolph Dugléré, the chef at Paris’s Café Anglais. Dugléré probably named the dish after Anna Deslions, one of the glamorous “grandes cocottes” of the period. Deslions supposedly hosted her upper-class clientele in the room above the restaurant, which may be why “I’ll have the pommes Anna” sounds like an innuendo from a Carry On film. Dishes named after celebrities were a theme of nineteenth-century French cuisine. Peach Melba was inspired by opera singer Nellie Melba and crêpes Suzette apparently takes its name from Suzette Reichenberg – not, as I’d always assumed, a Madame Crêpe. Another common misconception is that hasselback potatoes get their name from David Hasslehoff. Sadly this isn’t the case, but if it were up to me there would be lots more foods paying tribute to the Hoff. Like the Berlin Wall, I fell for him a long time ago. One day I’d like to have a dish as delicious as pommes Anna named after me – pheasant à la Felix has a nice ring to it – but until Gordon Ramsey slides into my DMs it seems unlikely. For now I’ll make do with cat food.
Today we think of elegant potato dishes as a central part of French cuisine, but this wasn’t always the case. The invention of pommes Anna came at the tail end of a long PR campaign to win the French over to this vegetable. Unlike Morrison’s Yorkshire pudding pizza, the potato eventually stuck around, but not without a concerted effort. The main person behind this was pharmacist and potato nut Antoine Augustin Parmentier. Parmentier had an uphill battle on his hands because spuds had been deeply unpopular in France for over a century.
Potatoes are native to modern day Peru and didn’t arrive in Europe until the 1500s. They were transported across the Atlantic by Spanish colonialists, who came across the vegetables as they massacred their way through the Andes. The conquistadors adopted the Quechua word for potato – papa – which in Spanish also means Pope. This ambiguity caused confusion at the dinner table and ran the major risk of a Charlotte being installed as head of the Church. Uncertainty over the word persists today – Jude Law spent four months preparing to play a young potato due to a translation issue.
Potatoes spread gradually across Europe but most people were suspicious of them. As an alien root that grew underground, they reeked of witchcraft. They were accused of causing leprosy, haemorrhoids and intense lust – a dangerous cocktail. Root vegetables in general were seen as aphrodisiacs which could unleash forbidden passions. I can’t say parsnips have ever done it for me – although celeriac has certainly come close – but I have witnessed three friends driven to dissolution by a potato gratin. Perhaps the spud-fearing Christians of the past had a point.
The French, never fond of foreigners, were especially reluctant to adopt this new crop. In 1748, driven by fears of horny lepers, the government decided to ban potatoes all together. It remained illegal to grow or consume potatoes in France for over two decades, but things changed when Parmentier came on the scene. He was the perfect poster-boy for potatoes because he looked quite like one. In an attempt to shift public opinion, Parmentier organised a series of publicity stunts. He planted potato fields just outside Paris which were left unguarded at night to encourage people to steal the crops, like when Cadbury’s got people to shoplift Fruit & Nut bars for exposure. To get the upper classes on board, Parmentier organised dinners for Enlightenment bigwigs where potatoes were the star attraction. He persuaded Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette to wear purple potato blossoms as accessories. It was even mooted that Madame de Pompadour could change her name to Madame de Pommes-de-Terre (citation needed).
Parmentier’s efforts worked and the French began to accept potatoes into their diet. His influence was so significant that his name has become synonymous with spuds. Dishes named after him include potage Parmentier, crème Parmentier and hachis Parmentier – a kind of posh shepherd’s pie. I first tried one of these in a strange spa town in the Alps. The place gave me sinister Les Revenants vibes, but I was distracted from my sense of impending doom by the food I ate. It turns out shepherd’s pie is a lot more delicious with duck.
By the 20 century, dishes like pommes Anna were mainstays of French cuisine and potatoes had finally shaken off their bad reputation in Europe. In Britain, new varieties were christened with regal names like King Edwards and Jersey Royals. Until recently I thought a Prince Albert was a type of potato, a misconception which could have wreaked havoc at the allotment.
Actually making pommes Anna is relatively simple once you’ve done the preparation. It’s important to use the right type of potatoes for this recipe. They need to be waxy. Think the texture of a Barbour jacket or the skin of the people who wear them. Holding the potato against a photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg often helps. A potato with waxy flesh will hold its shape better whilst cooking so you won’t lose those precious layers. Good options are Mozart, Charlotte or Desiree – the potato Neil Diamond recalls eating in his 1977 single. In a move that will have French purists choking on their pain au chocolat, I’ve added parmesan to the list of ingredients. Why not gild the lily? To cook the pommes Anna you will need a heavy pan with a lid which can go in the oven. Hopefully this delight of French cuisine transports you to the Café Anglais, or at least as far as Calais.
3½ kg waxy potatoes
clove of garlic
180g clarified butter, melted
60g parmesan, grated
- Preheat the oven to 220C and place a baking sheet on the middle shelf.
- Trim the potatoes into neat cylinders, removing any remaining skin. This may seem like a wasteful peeling technique but the trimmings are great in soup or roasted in the oven. Use a mandolin, food processor or sharp knife to cut the potatoes into thin slices.
- Rub a wide cast-iron pan all over with garlic. Put the pan on a medium-heat and add 3 tbsp butter. Once the butter is hot, begin to add the potato slices one by one. Working from the centre outwards, arrange them in overlapping concentric circles. When the first layer is finished add another 2 tbsp butter and a sprinkling of parmesan, then season with salt and pepper. Create a second layer of concentric circles, working inwards towards the centre of the pan this time. Add 2 tbsp butter, cheese and season, then work outwards from the centre again. Continue this process until all the potatoes are used up.
- Lightly butter the bottom of a similar-sized frying pan and use it to press down on the potatoes. Cover the cast-iron pan with a tight-fitting lid, place on the preheated baking sheet and cook for 20 minutes.
- Take the pan out of the oven and remove the lid, then use the buttered frying pan to press down on the potatoes again. Scatter the remaining parmesan on top and return to the oven, uncovered, for another 20 minutes.
- Once the potatoes are golden brown remove from the oven. Drain the excess butter into a bowl, pressing down on the potatoes with the other frying pan to hold them in place. You can use this left-over butter to roast or fry the potato scraps another day.
- Run a spatula or pallet knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the edges of the pommes Anna, then flip it out onto a large plate. It is delicious with a sharp salad.