You Say Potato, I Say Aartapple
By Kathie Beals
Just last month I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa (SA) to speak on Global Nutrition Trends at the biannual South African Potato Congress in Cape Town, SA. Now, you might be wondering how potatoes can grow in the hot and arid deserts of South Africa (I know I did!). In fact, potatoes not only grow in South Africa, they flourish. South Africa produces more potatoes than any country in Sub-Saharan Africa and potatoes are second only to Maize as a staple crop. Of course, the predominant variety of potato in South Africa does not resemble the US favorite, i.e., the Russet. Rather, the South African “aartapple” (Afrikaans for “potato”) is more similar to our yellow potato varieties, particularly the Yukon Golds. It has a creamy texture and a slightly buttery taste that lends itself to a high degree of versatility– equally appropriate for baking, boiling and mashing. And I had the opportunity to taste them all!
I had initially met my South African hosts a year earlier, at the World Potato Congress held in Idaho. They had attended my presentation on US Nutrition Trends and their Impact On Potatoes and were impressed enough to invite me to present at their biannual Potato Congress. It was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up!
My South African journey began in Johannesburg (known as Jo’burg to the locals) and its sister city, Pretoria where I spent the better part of three days being interviewed by and talking with the local media about potatoes. Surprisingly, they were interested in the same nutrition issues that preoccupy the minds of those living in the US: obesity, fad diets and whether or not you can eat potatoes and still lose weight. (You can by the way!).
Then it was on to Cape Town by way of Kimberly, where I was slated to speak to the local rugby and net ball teams about sports nutrition, specifically the importance of carbohydrates. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a mix-up with the schedule so I only spoke with a couple of the coaches and a few individual players. Nonetheless, I did get to visit the attraction for which Kimberly is most well known: the “Big Hole” where diamond mining in South Africa began and where the well-known diamond magnates, the de Beers began their Diamond Empire. We also took the opportunity to visit local grocery stores so that I could see first hand how potatoes are packaged and marketed in South Africa. It was clear that presentation of produce, particularly potatoes, was not a high priority in South African markets. Most of the potatoes were sold in big, white 10 kg bags that sat on the ground or in big tubs.
Having now seen Cape Town, I can truly understand why they call it the mother city. It was absolutely gorgeous. The Potato Congress was held in the wine country at a beautiful and expansive resort that reminded me a bit of Southern Plantation only with a tropical feel. While my presentation on Global Nutrition Trends and Their Impact on the Potato Industry was well received, it paled in comparison to the major event of the Congress, the crowning of the potato farmer of the year. I soon learned that this distinction is, without a doubt, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a farmer within the South African potato industry. The winner of the title receives an all-expense paid international trip (with his family) to a destination of his choice and a beautiful framed plaque. Of course, with the glory comes a number of responsibilities including speaking engagements, appearances, and extensive committee involvement.
After the congress it was on to the coast of Cape Town. Coastal Cape Town was such a sharp environmental contrast to Jo’burg, Pretoria and Kimberly; in fact, it was hard to believe that I was still on the African continent. Coastal Cape Town is lush and green and framed by a multitude of mountains, the most famous of which is Table Mountain. I had the opportunity to speak on the glycemic index at a day-long workshop for local dietitians at the University of Cape Town. The other keynote speaker was Professor Tim Noakes, well-known for his work in fluid replacement and specifically hyponatremia among athletes. Word of my visit quickly spread to the local media and it seemed every radio station wanted to interview the dietitian visiting from the U.S.! Perhaps the most memorable was my “guest spot” on the radio call-in show CAPE TALK.
While the presentations and media interviews were exciting, by far the most memorable experiences of my journey were the early morning runs I did along the coast and in the mountains of Cape Town. I got a chance to run up Lyon’s Head and navigated part of Table Mountain. I ran along the shores of Clifton Beach and skirted the base of the 12 Apostles. I ran along the cliffs overlooking Camps Bay and was greeted by the friendly “fin waves” of whales floating close by. And, on my very last day, I visited the Cape of Good Hope and hiked out to Cape Pointe where I stood at the “tip of the continent” and witnessed for myself the “meeting of the two oceans.” It was an awe-inspiring sight, concluding an amazing journey, one that will forever be etched in my memory.