Franconian Forest Black and Blue Potato

Ark of taste
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The Schwarz-Blaue Frankenwälder is a potato variety (Solanum tuberosum ssp.) whose name translates as, “blue and black from the Franconian Forest.” It is an old, local variety listed on the Red List of Endangered Native Crops in Germany published by the German Federal Office for Agriculture and Food. The Schwarz-Blaue Frankenwälder is a strongly floury potato. Its structure is a happy medium between fine- and coarse-grained. The potato tends to be on the drier side and of a firmer consistency. The Schwarz-Blaue Frankenwälder has a pronounced savory and earthy natural potato flavor not found in other varieties.

The variety was rediscovered by heirloom potato enthusiasts and collectors in the northern Franconian Forest in the 1980s and named after the location and the potato’s appearance. In its present geographic range, the potato is simply known as Schwarz-Blaue (“black-and-blue”) or simply Blaue (“the blue one”). In parts of the area, the dialect terms Mäusla (“little mouse”) and Russäla (“tiny sooty being”) are common. As a result of public relations work over the past two years, the variety has gained in recognition in its home region and the Schwarz-Blaue Frankenwälder name has become established.

Potatoes with black-and-blue skin used to be among the most frequently cultivated varieties in the Vogtland, a traditional German potato-growing region that encompasses parts of the German states of Bavaria, Saxony and Thuringia as well as the Czech Republic. In 1678, the Vogtland was the site for the first recorded field cultivation of potatoes in Germany, and potato fields eventually supplanted grain fields almost entirely there. It was there that potato dumplings were invented, and they served as the “daily bread” in the region. The Schwarz-Blaue Frankenwälder is one of very few local varieties to have survived in this region today thanks to its key role in the local gastronomic culture. Had it not been for the fundamental agricultural restructuring in the former East Germany, the variety would almost certainly also still be grown in the southern Thuringian Saale-Orla district (Bad Lobenstein, Wurzbach), where it is fondly remembered by the older generation.

The variety owes its survival to Fritz Gebelein, a farmer in Carlsgrün, a village near Bad Steben. In the 1970s, Gebelein was working as a machine operator in a company producing the feed for the village’s pigs from steamed potatoes and saved the black-and-blue potatoes for planting on his own fields because he appreciated their flavor and floury consistency. Other people from Carlsgrün and neighboring villages also recall taking home the black-and-blue potatoes when they helped with the harvest, because they were unsurpassed for use as potatoes boiled in their skin. The largest amount was always used for the traditional potato feast at the annual Carlsgrün village fête.

Modern cultivation is focused in the area around Bad Steben and Lichtenberg, and is expanding throughout Hof district. To what extent the sporadic cultivation in Kronach district can be intensified and cultivation in the Saale-Orla district in Thuringia can be restarted remains to be seen. The Schwarz-Blaue Frankenwälder can be bought from the small number of commercial farmers in farm shops, at regional farmers’ markets and by mail order. It is included ex.situ in the variety collections of the Austrian ARCHE NOAH foundation and of the German potato gene bank at Gross Lüsewitz. This potato variety pairs very well with fish, but is also used in a variety of dishes, prepared boiled, sautéed or freid. Larger specimens make for wonderful baked potatoes that please the eye with unique color effects if the potato is presented peeled in strips on the plate. The inside of the peel shines in a bright maroon, while the otherwise white flesh surprises with a thin layer of pigeon blue immediately beneath the peel. The potatoes store well and keep until the following summer. They slowly lose their flavor starting in early January, however.

The main threat facing this heirloom variety is the lack of appreciation for regional foods by the majority of consumers. Additionally, floury potato varieties are sold less and less on the market. Hardly anyone still prepares potato dumplings, potato fritters and other dishes made from potato dough, for which floury potatoes are required, from scratch at home. Most people use pre-mde products instead. Following the general decline – or rather, near-complete disappearance – of potato cultivation in its region of origin, the survival of the Schwarz-Blaue Frankenwälder depended on a small circle of enthusiasts who did not want to do without its distinctive taste in the local cuisine and included it as part of the culinary heritage and anchor of cultural identity in their activities aimed at preserving local history and traditions. Such circles, however, tend to decrease rather than grow over time, and thus do no offer sufficient security for the long-term preservation of old varieties. The Schwarz-Blaue Frankenwälder must therefore be regarded as endangered.

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