Unearthing the history of the potato

 

Boiled or baked, mashed or fried, the potato is served in a multitude of ways and is a staple part of the traditional British diet as well as being one of the world’s most important food crops. In this blog, we take a closer look at the common spud and unearth its surprisingly fascinating history.

 

The Origins of The Potato

Solanum tuberosum, more commonly known as the potato, is thought by many to have originated in Britain – but the truth is far more interesting. A member of the nightshade family, the potato plant was actually first cultivated in the Andes mountain ranges by the Inca people. The Incas were expert agriculturalists and developed methods which allowed them to grow potatoes (alongside other well-known species such as tomato and chilli) despite the harsh climate and terrain. Scientists and archaeologists have found lots of evidence which suggests that the Incas were growing and using potatoes from around 8,000 B.C, and a vast expanse of time was to pass before this humble crop was to travel across the globe.

How The Potato Arrived in Europe

In fact, potatoes did not reach Europe until the 1500s, a period when explorers and traders were beginning to travel further afield and discover “new” lands. The first European record of the potato dates to 1536, when a group of Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru to search for gold. Potatoes, though not considered as being valuable, were taken back to Spain around 1570, where some farmers began to cultivate them on a small scale. Merchants also sold potatoes in Italy, Austria, Belgium and France, helping the crop to spread throughout Europe. In these early days, most people considered potatoes to be unsuitable for human consumption, and used them as animal feed, or, in botanical gardens as a novelty plant. The potential of the potato as a dietary staple was only recognised as food shortages in the late 1600 and 1700s drove nations to look for more economical sources of nutrition. By the 1800s, the potato had claimed its place in diets throughout Europe, particularly in France, England and Ireland. Unfortunately reliance on this crop was to bring tragic consequences for some.

 

The Great Famine

In Ireland, the potato was accepted more quickly than in mainland Europe, it grew abundantly and allowed the poorest levels of society to nourish their families at a low cost. In 1840, records show that half the population were living almost exclusively on potatoes, as they had no means to afford other foods. Disaster struck in 1845, when the potato crops failed due to disease and the “Great Famine” began. For the next 4 years, Ireland was tormented by the destruction of its potatoes and more than one million people starved to death. Businesses closed and populations were reduced dramatically as those who escaped starvation were forced to start new lives, often as far afield as North America and Australia.

 

We hope that you enjoyed learning some of the most important moments in the history of the potato. Let us know what you think, and tell us your favourite potato recipes here!

 

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