"In front of a potato, we are all equal"
Stanislav Menard is a businessman whose paper factory in Slovenia churns out 3.5 billion envelopes a year. But away from his high-speed machinery, he has a special interest: he's president of the Slovenian Society for Sautéed Potato and Onions...
When we first heard about your association, we thought it was a joke...
"Yes, it did start as a joke. Our society was founded in 2000 by five professional people in Ljubljana [Slovenia's capital] who all enjoy eating our national dish, pražen krompir, which means sautéed potato. But over the years it has grown into an association of more than 2 000 people in more than 20 countries, and in September we expect 15 000 people to come to our 8th World Festival of Sautéed Potatoes."
What's so special about sautéed potatoes, Slovenian style?
"They are delicious. First you cook the potatoes in simmering water, very slowly, for up to 40 minutes. After they're cooked, you wash them in cold water for a minute and peel them. Then you pan fry the onions in a little pork fat or olive oil, also very slowly, for about 15 minutes at low temperature, until they practically disappear. Then you add the potatoes cut into thin slices and stir for another 20 minutes. That's the basic recipe. You can add mushrooms, vegetables or prosciutto. It's a full meal - in fact, our society's full name is 'Slovenian Society for the Recognition of Pražen Krompir as an Independent Dish'."
But that's nearly 90 minutes of preparation time...
"And that's the beauty of pražen krompir! One of the basic rules of our association is that members should get together to prepare a meal of sautéed potato and onions at least once a month. In 90 minutes, over a frypan, you rediscover the importance of sharing time with your friends and enjoying a meal together, two things that are being lost in our fast food culture. The other rule is that no one should talk politics - in front of a potato, we are all equal."
Is any particular variety best for pražen krompir?
"Each year we plant 20 to 25 different varieties of potato in our field in Ljubljana and in September we harvest them for testing. It's a big event, with 20 members serving as judges. Each variety is prepared in exactly the same way and we have strict judging criteria. What we are looking for is a potato with a creamy, buttery taste, one that melts in your mouth. Each year a different variety wins, but some members are particularly fond of our Slovenian traditional variety, the Igor, while others prefer Royal Jersey. As an association we organize trips to potato growing areas of other countries to sample their potatoes as well. Our members have been to Jersey, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Poland and even to Peru in 2006."
So Slovenia has had a long love affair with the potato?
"Actually, we were one of the last countries in Europe to adopt it, and then only by force. Agriculturally, Slovenia in the 18th century was a poor country, and famines were frequent. After a series of famines in the mid-1700s, Maria Theresa, the archduchess of Austria, decreed that our farmers should start growing potatoes. It was the beginning of a new era. Slovenia is a mountainous country and ideal for potato. Suddenly farmers had a reliable food supply, and feed for farm animals. There is one town, Šencur, that became such an important exporter of potatoes to Austria and Germany that it was called Kartoffeldorf [literally, "potato town" in German]. So what the International Year of the Potato is preaching is absolutely true - the potato did save Slovenia from hunger."
And it's in Šencur that you unveil a monument to the potato on 25 May...
"Yes, it's a bronze, life-size statue of Maria Theresa in peasant's clothing, seated and offering a potato in her outstretched hand. It's a mark of gratitude to her and to the potato. We are expecting a big crowd, including the European Ministers of Agriculture who will be meeting in Slovenia on the same weekend – but they will have to queue up for the potatoes like everybody else."