VAL BOURNE celebrates the vegetable's world importance

2008 is the International Year of the Potato. The serious message behind the campaign is that the potato can play a huge part in alleviating world hunger and poverty. The potato started life in the high Andes of South America, where it was harvested for 8,000 years. In the 16th century the Spanish introduced them into Europe and now it is the fourth most important food crop in the world. China is the world's biggest producer and almost a third of the world's crop is grown in China and India.

The adaptable vegetable can not only grow in many situations, it also produces more nutritious food more quickly - on less land and in harsher climates - than any other major crop. Up to 85 per cent of the plant is edible, compared with around half of a cereal. Potatoes are rich in carbohydrates and a good source of energy. They have the highest protein of any root or tuber and they are an excellent source of vitamin C and potassium. Even a single, medium-sized potato contains about half the recommended daily intake of vitamin C and a fifth of the recommended daily value of potassium.

Despite their nutritional value and flavour, the consumption of potatoes is declining in Europe. Perhaps it is because they were associated with weight gain. But potatoes are low fat as long as you don't lace them with butter. If you grow them at home and eat them very fresh, the vitamin and mineral content are higher. Most seed companies and garden centres stock at least 30 varieties and they sell them in smaller amounts.

This year I'm growing the floury Red Duke of York, the waxy French variety Belle de Fontenay, the popular all-rounder Pentland Javelin and my favourite, Foremost. These are all early varieties that are harvested small and young. My mouth is watering as I write. I grew my first crop aged five, so if you want a project for your children or grandchildren plant some spuds.

My virgin allotment is still weedy and this year I will be planting a new early maincrop called Harlequin. It is a cross between two super potatoes - Charlotte and Pink Fir Apple - so it should be good. They are available from Thompson & Morgan - 688821. I only hope it copes with the allotment because, ideally, potatoes like fertile, well-dug soil.

Timing is important when planting all potatoes because the top growth is frost-tender. So you would do well to remember the old adage which says "when the cuckoo shouts 'tis time to plant the tatties out". Don't be too keen to plant yours on Good Friday because Easter is early this year and March 21 is going to be a gamble as they may succumb to frost.

Arguments over which varieties to grow persist. But the best baker is still said to King Edward but don't try boiling it unless you want soup. The best roaster is Desiree, but it mashes superbly too. The best 'chipper' crown goes to Maris Piper, but Golden Wonder is a strong contender. The best boilers are said to be Wilja and Nicola.

For more information on the Year of the Potato visit the website.