Potatoes are a very popular vegetable in Europe and were first cultivated by the Incas, in Peru, 6,000 years ago. They were brought to Europe by the Spanish Conquistadors to impress Royalty in around 1570.Although they started out as an expensive and exotic food, they became part of the British staple diet in the 18th century. The effects of the potato blight in 1840s Ireland are well-known, as the population dropped dramatically. It is thought that more than a million people died and another million emigrated.For culinary uses, potatoes are placed into two groups, waxy and floury. The floury potatoes are better for mashing, baking, roasting and frying and the waxy potatoes are better served as boiled potatoes, grated in rosti and sliced in gratins or put in stews. Choose potatoes that have a smooth skin and are firm. They should also not be bruised, green-tinged or sprouting. Mashed potato can be used to make Irish potato cakes, added to pastry for savoury pies, used in a very moist chocolate cake or mixed into bread dough. Uncooked grated potato can be put into cakes such as ginger cake or used instead of carrots or parsnips in a loaf cake.For more information on which type of potatoes to use see [http://www.britishpotatoes.co.uk]In season; main-crop potatoes are harvested September/October, but are available most of the year.Fiona Burrell, co-author of Leiths Baking Bible, from the world-famous Leiths School of Food and Wine—-=== In my world: the craft baker ===So here it is! The shock waves that were first reported earlier in the year have rippled out from the American Sub-Prime epicentre and are, right now, shaking the Cotswolds. Many people have battened down the hatches and are not venturing out. In an instant, we find footfall is the main problem, as are wastage, labour costs and knowing what to do first.So here is what I’ve done. The shop, with a café, has been most affected, so I have seized the reins, made the manager redundant and not replaced the outgoing summer staff, making immediate labour cost savings. This has only been made sustainable by reducing the opening times and changing everyone’s contract, so we now have only one very focused shift. I have also dramatically altered our café offering, so there is nothing made to order, installed a self-service dresser that makes tempting treats more accessible, complete with travelling toaster, which has been popular and encourages customers to try our breads. I have encouraged take-out loyalty, by introducing a little sandwich card, which we stamp each time a sandwich is bought – and the 10th one is on us. This sits alongside our well-used Coffee Loyalty Card. One team member has been tasked with monitoring orders/sales/wastage, so that we can be on top of these things on a daily basis.Across the shops, I have relaunched the humble 800g split tin and standard wholemeal as ’Budget Bread’ and put posters up outside, reading, “Hobbs House Quality for only £1.45”. This has been a great way of challenging the general perception that our offering is only top-end and has had the effect of increasing the sales of our premium loaf.The economic situation demands that we look at our business in a sharper way, find the things that aren’t working well enough and deal with them. If we survive, our businesses will be keener and fitter than before. How cathartic – a forced and early spring clean!I can report that bread sales are still strong, including the organic bread, and there has been growth in premium patisserie – I assume for customers who want to eat well at home instead of a meal out. The leaner team at the bakery/café has made for a better atmosphere, so service is better than ever. Anyone can sell when times are good, but during a downturn, sales staff training needs to be comprehensive. So, to avoid complacency, customer service training is my next focus.If only I knew if any of these actions will be enough to weather the storm. If you have any storm-proof tips or ideas. please let me [email protected]—-=== Culture corner: book review ===== Baking and Bakeries (£4.99) by HG Muller ==Anyone ordering a complete history of Baking and Bakeries off Amazon and expecting a letterbox-challenging brick of a book will be relieved to learn that your postie won’t be risking a hernia by having to lug an undelivered package back to depot. Weighing in at a mere 32 pages (including lots of pictures), this re-issue as part of the Shire Classics series, originally published in 1986, impressively races through 5,000 years of bread baking. This is little surprise, given that not much changed in baking technology between Roman times and the 1800s, when the back-breaking labour of mixing was finally done away with by mechanical mixers and “perpetual ovens”, and industrialised baking and moulders came into use for the first time.Tracing baking’s origins, Muller throws up a few intriguing facts: the typical ancient Egyptian was no carb-dodger, munching through an average 500g of bread per day. Nor were Egyptian bakers too hung up about clean labels, adding moth-repelling chemical camphor to bread, to delay staling. By the Middle Ages, the baker had developed the reputation of being unscrupulous, often accused of selling underweight bread, with grim punishment for those caught, including being burned to death in one’s own oven.The concluding potted history of 20th century industrial advances is particularly accessible to industry newcomers, or for anyone with a short attention span.