the potato movement & a recipe

The Potato Movement sounds like the dance that Mr. Potatohead might do.  But of course if you have had an eye on the media, you’ll know that actually the Potato Movement is the attempt by Greek potato growers and Greek consumers to conduct business without middlemen.

Potato growers in Greece estimate that it costs about €0.15 to grow a kilo of potatoes.  Apparently, Athenian supermarkets sell them for €0.80/kg.  That might sound like a great profit for the farmers, but in fact, they take a loss, selling their potatoes for around €0.10/kg.  Middlemen and the supermarket make the profit.

The region of Greece that is most known for potatoes is the area around the city of Drama.  Drama is located in the central part of northern Greece, not far from the Bulgarian border.  The potato-growing epicenter is the agricultural land around the town of Nevrokopi, which, incidentally, is only a few miles from S’s father’s village.

Drama has traditionally been the poorest city in Greece, and as an extension of that, the poorest region, despite the fact that the soil is fertile and there are natural resources in the area.

But the potatoes are good, and the farmers know that they’re worth more than the 10 cents per kilo that they were getting, so the movement began to sell them – using the internet in some cases – in large quantities in Athens, direct to the consumer.  Each Athenian was allowed to buy 20 kilos of potatoes for €0.25 to €0.30 per kilo, giving the farmer a healthy profit, and a great discount for the consumer.

Although it started out as a small movement, it quickly (in a matter of days) grew to a nation-wide attempt by producers and consumers to bypass the multilayered system of commerce in Greece.

Potatoes were never €0.80/kg up here; I usually pay €0.48/kg for new potatoes at the supermarket, and €0.40/kg when they’re available at the farmers’ market.  Regular potatoes are usually around €0.50/kg here.  When I buy from the farmers’ market, I buy directly from the producer.  In agricultural areas like this one, the farmers at the farmers’ market are local, and the money stays in the local economy.

But in large cities like Athens and Thessaloniki, farmers’ markets are mostly vendors who buy from large central clearinghouses where farmers drop off their produce.  So even their farmers’ markets have this ‘middlemen’ aspect.

Since the Potato Movement got under way, other products have entered the mix:  olives and olive oil and flour to start, and hopefully more to come.

So what to do with your 20 kilos of potatoes?  Here’s a delicious twist on mashed potatoes that is frugal, easy, and a little different from what you might be used to.

Smashed Horseradish Potatoes with Caramelized Onions

First, chop the onions and pop them in the frying pan on medium heat with a few drops of olive oil.  Stir them around every 30 seconds or so throughout the cooking process.

Put about 2.5 inches of water in your pressure cooker and start it heating up while you wash the potatoes.

Open the pressure cooker and put the potatoes in; cover and bring up to pressure.  Cook until potatoes are tender.  In my pressure cooker, that’s about 8 minutes.  It will also depend on the size of your potatoes.  Don’t be tempted to speed up the process by cubing the potatoes – that tends to make them spongy and waterlogged.

Prepared horseradish is available in Greece as agriorapano / αγριοράπανο.  It’s sold at the AB Basilopoulos supermarket chain.  I don’t shop there often but when I go, I usually buy a few bottles of horseradish just to stock up.  Before I discovered horseradish at AB, I used horseradish powder from Penzey’s Spices – this is actually a great thing to have in your spice cabinet.

When your potatoes are done, cube them in a large bowl and add the butter, salt, and milk.

Mash, but not completely – you want some chunks of potato in there.

Stir in the onions.  I’m calling them caramelized onions but I don’t let them caramelize completely because then they’re too sweet.  I prefer them still oniony and a little charred, which means I only let them cook about 20 minutes.  You can caramelize them completely if you like.  That will take around 40 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds.

Add more milk to the potatoes if they’re too dry.  Stir in the horseradish.

Serve with lots of coarsely ground fresh pepper.

Smashed Horseradish Potatoes with Caramelized Onions
serves 4-6

1 kg potatoes
1 large red onion, chopped roughly
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp prepared horseradish
1/2 cup milk
2 tbsp butter
1/2 tsp olive oil
freshly ground pepper

1.  Heat the olive oil in a frying pan at medium heat.  Add the onions.  Stir every 30 seconds for the duration of the cooking time.

2.  Put 2.5″ water in pressure cooker and start heating.*  Wash potatoes and add to the water.  Cover and bring up to pressure.  Cook until potatoes are tender.  Drain.

3.  Cube the potatoes in a large bowl.  Add the butter and milk; mash roughly with a potato masher or a fork.   Add the salt, horseradish, and onions, and mash again.  Add more milk if at any point it is too thick to mash.

4.  Serve with freshly ground pepper.

*If you don’t have a pressure cooker, just boil the potatoes as you normally would, but you probably want to start them before the onions, depending on their size, so that everything is ready at the same time.

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13 thoughts on “the potato movement & a recipe

    • Penzey’s is amazing, isn’t it? It’s so different from the spice markets here, which are also amazing, and I think if I had to choose, I’d go with the traditional spice markets because of their charm, but a trip to Penzey’s is high on my list of things I will do the next time I’m in the US!

  1. Great story of how LOCAL works. It’s so good to hear the farmers getting earnings over those who gouge the customer at the other end! Hooray for the farmers!

  2. Seems as if this is a case of the Greek economy going back to what it was before the Euro. (I’m remembering that textbook you quoted.) And that way, it works.

    Are the middlemen protesting? Here of course, they’d be all over the media and the elected officials about how this was (or should be) illegal!

    Horseradish although I grow it has never been really a favorite. I’ll have to try these. Thanks!

    teacup

    • YES the middlemen are up in arms (metaphorically) about it! There have been many reports by farmers of being threatened, and the middlemen have actually offered higher prices to the farmers – but still below production costs. The middlemen have come out and said publicly, in effect: “If the potato farmers actually cared about consumers, they would have done this before now – why did they throw away thousands of tons of potatoes last year?” I love this response, both because it reiterates that what the potato farmers are doing NOW is good for consumers, AND because it implicates the middlemen themselves for having created a situation where the potato farmers were compelled to mulch their crop in order to attempt to raise the price to above production level (but which was ultimately unsuccessful). They are really sharp, those middlemen.

      • The cost of selling goods, no matter who’s doing it, has to be borne by the consumer. A farmer can’t sell produce for what it costs him to grow it, he must pay the price to get it to market too as well as make a profit, if he wants to buy gasoline for his car, etc. I know you know this, but I work in retail.

        One thing that I had had people say over & over was some variation of, “When you pay me $1 for a book, why do you then charge $3? Isn’t that cheating the customer?” And the answer was and is no. I had to pay my overhead (lights, rent, etc.) and hopefully make a profit. 300% sounds like a lot of markup, until you consider that my average product sat on the shelf for > 1 year. That meant that the mark up had to provide enough $ to pay that overhead for 1-2 years, as well as (hopefully) make a profit. The public in general want goods for the cost to produce them, or just over, without any kind of real understanding of the costs to get the goods TO market. Rent is the single highest expense for a store, at least in the U.S.,

        I’m not advocating for the middlemen or anything else, I’m just stating what I’ve seen in 30+ years of retail. People in general don’t “get” overhead.

        • you’re absolutely right. I think what upsets people with the situation in Greece is that the farmers were having to throw away food in an attempt to pull the ‘law of supply and demand’ in their favor, at the same time that Greeks were going hungry. By selling potatoes that cost €0.15 for €0.25, the farmers are making a profit – even after transport costs – and the consumer is able to buy food priced closer to their own buying power. No one thinks the farmers shouldn’t make a profit. But in Greece there are often many middlemen involved. Not just farmer -> supermarket -> consumer. There will be farmer -> local wholesaler -> regional wholesaler -> national wholesaler -> supermarket supplier -> supermarket -> consumer. The consumer bears the cost of all of those, but only the farmer loses money.

          • Well, the farmer and the consumer both lose of course,

            Did you know that potatoes have the highest satiety level of any vegetable? You can eat a potato and feel full, the reason it’s such a great food in bad times. (My food trivia for the day.)

            Thanks for the interesting post, as always!
            J

            • J, I didn’t know that but I’m not surprised – I guess the combination of the high water content and the starch make it hold you over. This recipe gets an additional satiety boost from the butter. I find that adding even just a small amount of butter or oil to food means it takes longer before I notice I’m hungry again. In fact, I’ve started using more oil and butter in the past month, and noticed I can rarely finish the food on my plate. I usually end up giving it to S!

  3. Good to hear that your local potato farmers are getting more for their potatoes AND giving the customer a good deal. Goods at farmers’ markets in UK tend to be more expensive, although perhaps more often organic and more fresh than in supermarkets. I’ve also noticed in Greece that many who sell direct still expect the same price or sometimes more than the same product in a supermarket where middlemen take profits too.
    I must try your horseradish mash here (although Greek potatoes are so much better than the ones we get in UK). I often do an onion & garlic mash, using olive oil rather than butter, with lots of crushed garlic added late in the onion frying stage. (Could suit your commenter ‘teacup’ above who doesn’t like horseradish.) I’ve never seen horseradish in Greece, but we took a jar there at Christmas, barely used. In spite of what jar labels say we find most of these kinds of things last well enough if left in a cool place for our next trip. I could never use up all the jars I open in time unless I used the same flavour for nearly every meal for a week or two. The advisory ‘use by’ dates are just that. Use your eyes, nose and brain to decide if still OK – depends on ingredients and most jars have a preservative such as vinegar or sugar. Usually there is no need to waste.

    • That bottle of horseradish in the photo (which I used up to make this recipe) had been in my fridge practically since we moved here last August. It doesn’t go bad, there must be vinegar in there. I never throw things away on their expiration dates – I know some people might be shocked by that, but I’m pretty confident in my ability to judge if something has gone bad, and like you say, no need to waste food.

      Your experience with UK farmers’ markets is the same as mine with US farmers’ markets. Lots of ’boutique’ produce – very high quality, organic, heirloom varieties, attractively displayed, selling for significantly more than the supermarket. At our farmers’ market here in town, the prices are very competitive with the supermarket, and as I mentioned in an earlier post about food shopping in Greece, while the *posted price* may well be, say, €1 for 1 kilo of spinach, the farmers’ market vendor will 99% of the time give you 1.5 kilos for that price. And if you hit the market a little later in the day, you will get all kinds of stuff for free. I’ve been given the equivalent of a huge garbage bag of vegetables for €1 because the vendor was tired and wanted to go home. I’ve never had that happen at a supermarket! And we’re very lucky that we live in an agricultural area, where the farmers are reinvesting the money right here in town. If I have to choose between €0.50/kg for potatoes from the huge multinational corporation or €0.50/kg from the local farmer, the choice isn’t just ‘ethical,’ it’s common sense. The farmer’s income is likely to stay in the local economy. Plus they taste way better.

      It doesn’t surprise me when farmers charge a little more than a supermarket, even for non-boutiquey items. Small producers do have a higher cost of production. My mother sold her produce at the farmer’s market for years when I was growing up, and she kept her prices at supermarket levels. She didn’t make a profit one single time in 10 years. My dad finally got tired of it and made her stop. It’s true: there may sometimes be a premium on small producer goods. In this town, it’s pretty rare for the regular supermarket price to be lower than the in-season regular farmers’ market price, but sometimes produce sales on in-season produce will be lower than at the market. I take advantage of those sales and do buy produce from the supermarket when it’s on sale.

      As famous as Nevrokopi potatoes are, my favorite potatoes are from the island of Naxos. They are absolutely to die for!! They’re not available here for obvious reasons — we’re close to Nevrokopi so there’s no reason to import any others. But if you haven’t tried Naxos potatoes, I highly recommend them!

  4. Pingback: potato & herb bake | homeingreece

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