Solanum tuberosum esculentum

A native of highland South America, with evidence of use in Peru dating back to at least 3,000 BC. Since maize, the staple for most of the Americas, does not grow well at altitude, the potato, a hardy plant which takes a lot of punishment, became the staple of the American mountain dwellers. It can grow at altitudes as high as 4,000m (13,000ft) and can even grow on the snowline. Firm evidence of cultivation in Peru has been found dating back to 750BC and archeologists have also found remains of a dehydrated potato product, chuño which seemed to form an important part of winter food stores and a potato flour, produced by a similar process, called tunta. Pottery in the shape of potatoes have also been found at some sites, suggesting that it may also have been worshipped.
There are several claims for its discovery and transport to the ‘Old World’, but first off the mark may have been the Spanish explorer, Gonzalez Jiménez de Quesada, who first came across it in 1536, mistaking it originally for a new variety of truffle.
The idea that Sir Walter Raleigh is responsible for bringing it from the ‘New World’ seems to now be generally regarded as a modern myth and Lindsey Bareham in her ‘In Praise of the Potato’, 1995, quotes a theory as to why the connection was established, put forward by the American foodwriter, Waverley Root:
In 1586, Sir Walter Raleigh’s cousin, Sir Richard Grenville, sailed to do battle with the Spaniards in the Caribbean, and the story goes that he was asked to drop off some provisions in Virginia for premature colonists. One of Raleigh’s men, Thomas Hariot, went along for the ride as far as Virginia and on arrival they discovered that the colonists wanted out. Around that time Sir Francis Drake was about to set sail for England after a successful series of battles against the Spaniards in the Caribbean.
“Drake stocked up with provisions for the return journey at Cartagena, Colombia, and included some potatoes. Next stop was Virginia to pick up the colonists. They returned via Ireland and Raleigh is supposed to have planted some of the tubers in his property at Youghal, near Cork. But, by the time the ship arrived in England, the potato and the Virginian settlers became inextricably entwined and potatoes became Virginian potatoes.”
Reaction to its introduction was mixed, to say the least. As a member of the solanaceae, its 12 European cousins include such varieties as mandrake, henbane, woody nightshade, deadly nightshade and thorn apple, leading many to regard it has having similar, poisonous properties. However, the Americas have over 1,000 members of the genus, including the tomato and chilli.
Even its common name became subject to confusion. Another tuber, the Sweet Potato, brought back by Columbus from Haiti, and called batata by the natives there was often confused with the ordinary potato and so the original Peruvian papas was soon forgotten. The Spanish changed it to patata, the English to potato and most of the rest of Europe seem to have opted for variations on an ‘earth-apple’ theme - pomme de terre in France.
The potato was taken to India in the early 17th century where it did little to challenge rice and pulses as a staple, but did gain acceptance as a vegetable. John Gerard listed the plant in his herbal in 1597, by 1650 it had become the staple food in Ireland and by 1840 it had been attributed with causing over-population in Ireland. In 1845 and 1846 the potato famine affected the population badly enough to trigger mass emigration to America and Britain.
However, not all the Celts took to it. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, Protestants refused to use it as it was not mentioned in the Bible, but the canny Roman Catholic Irish overcame this particular theological problem by ‘baptizing’ seed potatoes with Holy Water and planting them on Good Friday.
The resourceful Irish also found another use for their new staple. They mashed them up then boiled and distilled them to produce the sometimes lethal Poteen (pronounce pocheen). Frank Muir, humourist and author, writing in 1976 on the subject, pointed out that in many cases this moonshine eau de vie turned out to be eau de mort.
European leaders seized upon the easily grown, filling crop as a means of feeding the masses; Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered mass cultivation and several European governments issued edicts promoting the tuber.
The English also saw the great potential of the potato, although they regarded it initially as a medicine and, typically for the times, an aphrodisiac, as highlighted by its inclusion as such in Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’.
The French, on the other hand, reviled it, and it was only used on a very small scale until pharmacist, Antoine-Auguste Parmentier, recommended the use of the potato as a solution to the country’s recurring famine in the early 1770’s. However, the French were less than enamoured of this ugly, unprepossessing tuber and resisted strongly. Feelings against the potato were so high that a rumour even existed that it would cause leprosy. So Parmentier indulged in a little reverse psychology; gaining permission from Louis XVI to plant a small field of potatoes just outside Paris, he posted a very conspicuous guard. This was enough to pique the interest of the contrary French temperament with Parisians, who had initially turned up their noses at the tuber, plundering the crop and giving the potato a new-found ‘chic’. To reinforce this new growing popularity, M. Parmentier demonstrated a genius for marketing that many modern companies would envy in organizing a royal banquet, at which every course contained potatoes in some form and the Royal couple wore potato flowers, his name gaining synonymity with the potato for posterity in France.
In folk medicine, potato and milk poultices are used for cuts and wounds, skin infections and swellings; raw potato juice is used for gastritis and stomach swellings and it is believed that its alkaline properties make it good for combating uric acid retention, rheumatism and arthritis.
Today, the potato is the third most important crop in the world and, according to figures from the Potato Marketing Board, we eat an average of 100kg (242lb) per person, per annum.
Nutritionally, the potato has had some unfair press over the years, being falsely labelled ‘stodgy’ and ‘fattening’. In fact, it is not the potato itself which piles on the calorie count, but whatever cooking method or accompaniment one chooses.
An example of this is the fried potato crisp or chip. Labelled as junk food or ‘empty calories’, they are actually an excellent source of potassium and a good source of vitamin C. An average bag of crisps (35g) provides just under a quarter of the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C in an adult non-smoker.
The BIG drawback is that they have a huge fat content. Because of the large surface area afforded by their shape, they absorb 1/3 of their weight in fat. Another high-fat British favourite, the chip, (ironically dubbed French-fries by the Americans and Pommes Anglaise by the French), is also high in fat. But this can be reduced by various methods. Using fresh potatoes, rather than frozen will help - frozen chips absorb fat more readily. Oven chips, however, are lower in fat by comparison to deep fry. In addition to this, the cut of the chip will also affect final fat content. Weight-for-weight, the thinner a chip is cut, the greater the surface area created and hence in contact with the fat, and fat absorption increases. Needless to say, crinkle-cut increases the surface area even more! Oven chips contain around 5%, medium-cut 10% and thin cut, or string, 20%. A 225g (8oz) potato, boiled, steamed or baked contains just 160 calories and is composed of 81% water, 16% starch, 1% minerals and trace elements, 0.79% vitamins, 0.6% fibre, 0.35% protein, 0.27% sugars and 0.08% fats.
One medium potato supplies, on average, 30mg vitamin C, nearly as much as in a glass of tomato juice and 1.5mg iron, which is around the same amount as in an egg. However, long storage times, soaking, boiling and salt in the cooking water can drain out some of the precious nutrients, which are mainly found just under the surface of the skin. For this reason, some people advocate using potato cooking water for soup stocks, gravies and cooking other vegetables and always cooking them in their skins. Potato juice has also been used for some time in Germany as an effective antacid.
The potato also contains thiamin, riboflavin, nicotinic acid and a significant amount of potassium at 844µg per 100g. When potatoes turn green, however, throw them away. When exposed to light in bad storage, poisonous solanine levels rise rapidly, causing them to be unfit for consumption when levels rise above as much as 0.1%. Even in small amount, solanine can cause drowsiness and migraines in those sensitive to its effects.