Grabbing the Potato by the Horns

21 May 2012

Bamberg in Bavaria is known as the “market gardeners’ town” and has an ancient tradition of vegetable growing which has helped shape its urban layout. It comes as no surprise to learn that it was the birthplace of a vegetable presidium, dedicated in 2009 to the horn-shaped Bamberger Hörnla potato.

The town’s Gärtnerviertel, or “garden quarter,” has been an integral part of the magnificent historic center—now a UNESCO World Heritage Site—since the early Middle Ages. Archaeological finds attest to the presence of small cultivated areas along the edges of the central streets since the 14th century, and a famous 1602 map shows small green cultivated areas behind the houses, planted primarily with vegetables, herbs, fruit trees and grapevines.

In the middle of the 19th century, the town had over 500 Stadtbauernhöfe, farmhouses with large food gardens attached, which represented a third of all its buildings. Run by 540 master vegetable-growers, these urban farmhouses were all built th same way, with a wide wooden entryway ox-drawn carts, living quarters facing onto an inner courtyard, at the bottom of which an attic served as a storeroom and, to the rear, a garden of around 1,000 square meters. About 20 of these farmhouses still survive today, and one is home to the market-gardeners’ museum.

These large urban gardens were planted with cabbages, kohlrabi, red cabbages, cauliflowers, Savoy cabbages, radishes, beets, leeks, potatoes, onions, garlic, cucumbers, pumpkins, peas, beans, spinach, black salsify, asparagus, chives, marjoram, dill, anise, coriander, parsley and chervil. Many different varieties of tubers were grown in the town and throughout the Franconia region, but only a few have survived to the present day. The Bamberger Hörnla, like most of the other varieties, was used mainly for family consumption; only a small part of the surplus production was sold at the markets of Munich and Erfurt.

Selected by families and excluded from official national lists, the potato variety is still not grown outside the borders of Bavarian Franconia. In 2008 it was named “potato of the year”, and in March 2009, thanks to the work of the Slow Food Hohenlohe-Tauber-Main-Franken Convivium and a producers’ association, it became a Slow Food Presidium. The Presidium gathers together around 20 growers and market gardeners, both amateurs and professionals.

The Bamberger Hörnla plant is small and very delicate, with thin leaves and white flowers, and needs light, nutrient-rich soil. The tuber has a smooth, silky skin, pale beige in color with pink streaks, while the flesh is bright yellow, intensely flavored and with a unique waxy texture often called speckig (literally “fatty, full-bodied”). The flesh stays firm even when cooked. The name Hörnla means “horn-shaped” and refers to the curved shape of the small tubers, 3 to 10 centimeters long and no more than 4 centimeters in diameter.

In the kitchen, the Bamberger Hörnla is more than a mere side dish. Its firm texture and hazelnut flavor make it perfect for one of the region’s specialties, potato salad. Many variants exist, but whether the potatoes are cooked in broth or water, whether they are served with pickles, onion or hard-boiled eggs, in Bamberg a good Kartoffelsalat is invatiably made with Hörnla potatoes.

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