In every city there are the big ticket attractions; the places the tourists flock to, the places you find in guide books. Those places are great, they’re often the iconic sites that were a big part of what drew you to the city in the first place. Seeing them is not only about crossing them off your bucket list, but about feeling like you’ve realised a dream. It’s standing under the Eiffel Tower and having a little moment when you feel like you’ve achieved something you once thought impossible.
And then there are the other sites, the more tucked away places that capture the essence of a city in a different way. These are often more quirky, more unusual, more obscure, and yet in some way they represent a deeper connection to the city.
For me, one of those places is Das Kartoffelhaus (The Potato House). Situated in the wonderful Carlsplatz street market, Das Kartoffelhaus makes me smile every time I pass. Sure there are plenty of vegetable stands that sell potatoes, but this one sells nothing but.
It is thought that the potato arrived in Europe around 1570, brought back by Spanish sailors from the Andes. Explorers like Sir Francis Drake were also credited with having brought this new crop back from the ‘New World’. While not entirely justified, Drake’s reputation as father of the European potato was such that in 1853 a statue was erected to him in Southern Germany describing him as ‘the disseminator of the potato in Europe’. It is more likely, however, that the dissemination of the potato was the work of Spanish armies who carried stockpiles of this hardy vegetable to feed their armies. And, as is the wont of mobilised armies, potatoes were left behind along the way.
It was Frederick the Great, however, who ensured the potato had pride of place in Germanic hearts. In 1756, Frederick issued his first of fifteen Kartofelbehel, royal commands decreeing that all Prussians must plant potatoes. A great fan of the potato, Frederick believed in the value of the potato as a high yield resilient crop that would serve both the population and its livestock. In recognition of his contribution to the nation’s culinary tradition, Germans still put potatoes on Frederick II’s grave.
To this day the legacy of Frederick’s intervention continues. Potatoes remain a staple of the German diet, in many varied forms as exemplified by the fact that around one hundred different varieties of potato are available at Das Kartoffelhaus (depending on the season), including yellow, red and blue varieties. And in the event that your favourite potato variety is not available, they will attempt to source it for you!
Of course your visit to Düsseldorf should include all of the big attractions, but make sure you also set aside time to go to Carlsplatz and pick up a potato or two.