Potato Week: the history of the potato

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th October 2014
Potato Week LogoAs it’s potato week, why not take a look back at the history of our beloved spud? The versatility of the potato allows it to span all price ranges from the potato crisp to potato dauphinoise. Today, they are a common and expected sight on any dinner table around the world but this has not always been the case... The potato is remarkable both for its adaptability and its nutritional value. They can grow in almost any climate and supply every vital nutrient except calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D. Many researchers believe that the potato’s arrival in northern Europe spelled an end to famine in the region. William H. McNeill has even gone as far as to say the potato led to an empire. “By feeding rapidly growing populations,” he said, “it permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world.” The potato, in other words, fuelled the rise of the West. cartoon-potatoThe potato plant, historically speaking, is new in Europe. The first records of the potato come from the ancient civilisations of South America between 8,000 and 5,000 BC. The Inca Empire of modern-day Peru was allegedly the first to cultivate the potato. The plant remained in South America, alien to the rest of the world until the European exploration in the sixteenth century. The Spanish conquistadors were the first to bring the potato to Europe and Sir Walter Raleigh introduced it to Britain. At the time it was an exotic plant but not an immediate success with the public. When it first arrived in Europe, the potato was a startling novelty, frightening to some and bewildering to others. Initially, potatoes were more popular for their flowers than as a source of food. By some accounts, Marie Antoinette liked the blossoms so much that she put them in her hair while her husband, Louis XVI, put one in his buttonhole. The French aristocracy wore potato plants on their clothes as part of an often futile attempt to persuade French farmers and diners to embrace this strange new plant. Most Europeans regarded potatoes with suspicion, distaste and fear. Generally considered unfit for human consumption, they were used mainly as animal fodder. Even peasants refused to eat from a plant not only considered ugly and misshapen but originating from a heathen civilization. Some even feared the introduction of the potato as the work of the devil. It was not until the Napoleonic Wars, with food in short supply, when the potato started to become a staple part of the European diet. potato flower One nation that immediately embraced the potato was Ireland. Many Irish survived on milk and potatoes alone with potatoes typically supplying appetizer, dinner and dessert. The result was a remarkably healthy population as milk and potatoes together provide all the essential nutrients. In the 1840s, however, a major outbreak of potato blight swept through Europe and wiped out the crop in many countries. The results in Ireland were catastrophic. Almost one million people died from starvation and disease whilst another million fled the country, proving, in the most brutal way, the significance of this once alien plant. When the European diet expanded to include potatoes, farmers were not only able to produce much more food but they also gained protection against the catastrophe of a grain crop failure. The threat of famine, therefore, was significantly stifled. Highly nutritious potatoes also helped mitigate the effects of diseases like scurvy, tuberculosis, measles and dysentery. Newsprint Paper Cone The consequences are obvious in hindsight: massive population growth. Between 1801 and 1851, England and Wales experienced an unprecedented population explosion, their combined population doubling to almost 18 million. Prior to 1800, the English diet had consisted primarily of meat, bread, butter and cheese. Few vegetables were consumed. Vegetables were even regarded as nutritionally worthless and potentially harmful. This view gradually began to change. The Industrial Revolution brought people to the cities, working 12-16 hour days and leaving them neither the time nor the energy to prepare food. High yielding, easily prepared potato crops were the obvious solution. The English were also rapidly acquiring a taste for potatoes, as is evidenced in recipe books from the time. Hot potato vendors and merchants selling fish and chips wrapped in paper horns became a customary feature of city life. Potatoes are so rich in starch that they rank as the world's fourth most important food crop, after maize, wheat and rice. They are still making history. In October 1995 the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space. NASA developed super-nutritious potatoes to feed astronauts on long space voyages and hope to feed future space colonies with their supercharged version of the potato.Blackadder potato Potato week is a celebration of all things spud related. They have become such a routine part of our diet that it is easy to forget the importance of the potato in our history. We should treasure this remarkable plant, we have a lot to thank it for. Have a look at some potato recipes that we've got on the site: Rose Veal, Turnips, Dripping Potatoes and Hen of the woods by Adam Reid Baked potato risotto by Tom Kerridge Quotes about potatoes: What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.” - A.A. Milne. “Every single diet I ever fell off was because of potatoes and gravy of some sort.” - Dolly Parton. “Only two things in this world are too serious to be jested on, potatoes and matrimony.” - Irish saying. “The potato, like man, was not meant to dwell alone.” - Shila Hibben. By Tom Evans Are you cooking any potato dishes this week in celebration of this staple veg? Let us know, tweet us here @canteentweets

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th October 2014

Potato Week: the history of the potato