The weekend of the 10th to the 12th of September was the weekend I ate more potatoes in three days than I ever did in my entire life. During that weekend, the Union of Agricultural Cooperatives of Naxos (Ένωση Αγροτικών Συνεταιρισμών Νάξου, or EAS Naxos) organised their Food Experience Patata Naxou all across the Cycladic island of Naxos and its neighbour Schoinousa in order to promote and celebrate their famous Naxian potatoes. Together with a few other foodies, journalists, artists and media personalities, I was graciously invited to take part in the gastronomic festivities and sample several flavourful dishes using the treasured Naxian potato as the main star. Not only did we really get to experience the many different ways these tasty taters can be enjoyed (spoiler: there are many), but we even had a crack at playing potato farmer for a day for a good cause too!
“What’s the deal with those Naxian potatoes?”, you might ask. Well, I’ve written before that Naxos is renowned for their cheeses and dairy products, but for those not already in the know, Naxos is equally well-known throughout Greece for the great quality and flavour of their potatoes. Alongside the decades of specialisation in potatoes and potato seed production, it’s said that these Naxian potatoes get their unique taste from the quality of the soil and specific climate conditions of the island itself (a lovely sea-scented breeze never did anybody wrong, did it?). It should come as no surprise then that a few years ago EAS Naxos registered the ‘patata Naxou’ as a product of Protected Geographical Indication (P.G.I.), which emphasises and honours that particular relationship between a specific region and the specific qualities and characteristics of a product.
Indeed, these potatoes do have some great characteristics which make them not only pleasant to eat, but also quite pleasant to cook with. Naxian potatoes will usually have a tannish brown, relatively thin skin and they vary in sizes ranging from just slightly bigger than what is commonly referred to as ‘baby potatoes’ up to the size of a large fist (or two). Their flavour is mild, earthy and only slightly sweet, while their texture is quite starchy yet firm enough to hold their shape, which means they lend themselves well to different cooking techniques and dishes. Which is exactly how you will often find them in Greece as these potatoes are used in nearly every way possible: deep-fried, pureed, mashed, oven-baked, grilled, boiled, cooked in stews, blended into various Greek dips and salads, and as of lately even as jacket potatoes topped with tasty ingredients.
Highlights of Food Experience Patata Naxou 2021
You should obviously try Naxian potatoes yourself in order to truly experience what they taste like, but allow me to give you a little ‘taste’ (tease) of some of the more popular potato dishes showcased at this year’s Food Experience Patata Naxou. Sadly, you’ll have to imagine the amazing flavours and smells yourself, I am afraid.
Fries, chips, frites, patates tiganites. Whatever you call them, it’s no real potato festival without these deep-fried potato sticks… or any type of festival, if you ask me. I think everyone agreed, because no matter where we went during these three days of potato-festing, these golden, crispy, salty sticks were always present in vast amounts and they were usually first to be refilled too.
Even more popular than fried potatoes are these traditional Greek roasties. Some of the best Greek dishes are cooked very slowly, sometimes for hours, and that’s exactly how the potatoes in this oven-roasted katsikaki me patates dish reach near perfection. Whilst slow-roasting in the oven together with a generous amount of good Greek olive oil, meat and a big squeeze of lemon juice, the patata Naxou becomes soft and creamy and full of flavour from soaking up all those tasty juices and oils. The perfect comfort food and definitely a favourite of many at the festival as well.
Speaking of comfort: almost equally tasty were these braised potatoes which you will often find added to Greek meat dishes such as the spetsofai with sausage (pictured) or to vegetarian dishes such as green bean stews to bulk up the meal. As with the oven-roasties, in these dishes, the starchy potatoes soak up as much flavourful juices as possible, barely staying together before completely melting in your mouth once you bite into them.
This potato salad made with chunks of boiled potato, carrot, spring onions and lots of fresh herbs and olive oil was something different from the usual mayo-laden potato salad affairs. It was a welcome refreshing and simple dish yet it was still full of flavour whilst the potatoes really got to be the star. A great simple salad to have on a hot Greek summer’s day.
And then there was also this type of ‘salad’, or dip, rather. I am a big fan of a Greek potato-based dip called skordalia, which is made by mixing potato (or bread) with lots of garlic and oil until smooth and creamy, but I had never heard about or tasted the potato and parsley dip pictured above, which is a shame really because it’s very tasty as well. Slightly reminiscent of a thinner yet creamier mashed potato type of deal, this dip was great scooped on some crusty bread as an appetizer. The parsley in the dip gives off a subtle grassy aroma and flavour, which is perfect for those not into intense flavours and that want to avoid smelling like garlic all day.
A bit less common at a traditional Greek lunch or dinner are these twice baked potatoes or jacket potatoes. I’d choose eating an unpeeled potato over a peeled one any time, but whilst these types of dishes are gaining popularity over here in Greece (as they should), I still know plenty of Greeks that find eating unpeeled potatoes rather odd. Naturally, those type of people were not present at this potato festival and we were served these delicious twice baked potatoes that were oven-roasted and hollowed out after which the insides were mixed with other ingredients such as graviera Naxou and louza (a type of cured pork meat from the Cycladic region) and roquefort. The result? Perfectly crispy and chewy skins on the outside, incredibly tasty creamy center. Yum!
A real food experience is not just about eating (what? it isn’t?), but it’s also about creating memories, making new friends, interacting with produce itself, learning about the history of a product or dish, being taught different ways to use a product, and, most importantly: sharing. And I don’t just mean the sharing of food with the latter. The final day of the food experience was dedicated to this important part, when all of us symbolically planted some Naxian potatoes to bring light to a good cause. A few times per year, EAS Naxou generously donates parts of their proceeds earned from the sales of these Naxian potatoes and other popular products such as Graviera Naxou to institutions throughout Greece that support children in need. Kind of makes their food taste even better, doesn’t it?