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
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 Raleighs 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 Raleighs
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 Shakespeares
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 countrys recurring famine in the early
1770s. 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
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.