Why do we shred potatoes, I ask myself. After all there are so many other excellent ways of preparing, cooking and serving this popular tuber. Yet, throughout Europe, potatoes are grated, either raw when making an Ardèchois-style crique or half-cooked for a Swiss rösti.
Both these types of potato pancake are fried, so perhaps it’s the flavour of butter or vegetable oil plus the crisp outer layer that gives way to soft, moist interior that appeals. Similar to the liking for chips or French fries – but quicker and cheaper to produce.
“It’s just potatoes and butter,” says my Swiss friend, Lori, as she tilts the hot pan to coat the base with the golden liquid. “What could be nicer than that?” She is not expecting me to say whole potatoes roasted in duck fat. So I don’t.
When the butter is foaming, Lori gently tips the plate of coarsely grated, refrigerator-cold, half-cooked potato into the pan and gradually spreads it in an even layer. Already, the appetising scent of hot butter spreads through the kitchen. “You can serve rösti with anything – fried eggs, bacon, sausages, and fish or a plate of salad.” Just like chips, I think.
After 5 minutes or so the rösti is cooked enough to be slid gently onto a plate. Another knob of butter is added to the pan and when it is sizzling, the rösti pancake is replaced in the pan with the golden cooked side uppermost.
We carry a bowl of salade composée to the table under the pergola and take our seats. Lori transfers the golden rösti to a serving plate, brings it to the table and cuts it into four portions. She pours wine and we begin to eat. The rösti is utterly delicious and I become an immediate convert.
Many years ago when, as a student, my daughter discovered the Ardèche region of France, I began to research its recipes. Partly due to its geographic isolation, lack of industrial development, and fierce pride in its identity, many of the traditional dishes of this beautiful area are still enjoyed in everyday cooking.
One evening, as part of the meal she gave us, our good friend and superb cook, Jeannette Doize, made an Ardèchois potato dish known as la crique. There are four kinds of crique, according to Jean-Paul Barras in his book, Le Coeur et la Fourchette: one for those in a hurry, one for the rich, one for the impoverished, and his own. Jeannette prepared la crique des pauvres and it has since become so popular in our family that even my grand-children now cook it.
La crique des pauvres
500 g potatoes
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
oil for frying – grapeseed, sunflower or safflower
Peel the potatoes and grate into a bowl. Mix in the garlic, parsley and a little salt.
Heat a little oil in a frying pan – ideally with a heavy base – until hot but not smoking. Add 3 or 4 tablespoons of the mixture separately to the pan flattening each one with the back of the spoon. Cook until the potato pancakes are golden-brown on both sides. Drain them on kitchen paper and serve straight away.
Alternatively, pile the mixture into the hot oily pan and make one large potato cake, turning it over once. Serve hot, cut into wedges.
To make La crique des gens riches, add 2 beaten eggs and 150 ml crème fraîche to the mixture before cooking.
To make La crique de Jean-Paul Barras, omit the garlic and parsley in the recipe for the poor.