All about potato > A Short History

Discovered on the Andean plateaus

It was from Peru that the potato set forth to conquer the world. Peruvian "papas" are yellow: dried in the sun, these potatoes can keep for years. In the days of the Incan empire, the emperor would have them stockpiled to distribute to the peasants in times of famine.

British Isles
The potato was brought back to England in 1586 by Sir Francis Drake. While the potato has become a part of daily life in the British Isles, it had a hesitant beginning here during the reign of Elizabeth I since its flavour was considered bland. The potato continued its incursion into continental Europe, and became widely cultivated in Ireland, becoming so primary a food source that when the potato crops were destroyed by blight in the 1840s, Ireland was thrown into a devastating famine.

In France's Jardin des Plantes, Monsieur Parmentier (1737-1813) studied the potato, seeking new ways to improve the quality of this white-fleshed tuber whose culinary properties he had discovered while a soldier in Hanover. In fact, it was thanks to the potato that he had survived while a prisoner of war in Prussia during the Seven Years War. He clashed with peasants who saw the potato as a food suitable only for their pigs - in some provinces it was even said that it would cause leprosy. But anyone passing by Parmentier's home around mealtime would be invited in to share his "boil-up" as he attempted to win new converts to the potato. Louis XIV, faced with a popular uprising over the price of bread, was asking botanists and other scientists to come up with a new food to fill the bellies of the poor. So Parmentier presented his potato "bouillie" to the king and received royal approval - thus his name passed into history and the potato became part of the everyday menu. It was Louis XV who gave the potato its French name "pomme de terre" ("earth apple"); before that time it had been known as the "batata."

In America
The potato travelled back to the New World with the establishment of British colonies in America. First sent from England to colonists in Bermuda in the early 17th century, the potato then travelled to Virginia. A century later potato consumption would become firmly entrenched in the colonies when the tuber was brought to New England by a large migration of Scots-Irish settlers. To the north, in the colony of New France, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, governor of Canada, wrote to Minister Bigot in France on August 8, 1758:

A farmer has had some potatoes brought from France that produce abundantly while requiring little attention. I have obtained a few hundred tubers and have distributed them to the Acadian refugees.

The almost mythic connection between the Irish and their potatoes is actually firmly grounded in fact: no one consumes more potatoes per capita! An old Irish proverb says, "Be eating one potato, peeling a second, having a third in your fist and your eye on a fourth." And a more romantic Irish saying holds that "it's easy to halve the potato where there's love."


Illustration : Potato-Growing in Peru
Drawing by Poma de Ayala (16th c.)

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