Potato, one of the most versatile root vegetable at all time.
A plant tuber, potato varieties differ in shape, colour, size, flavour and starch content. Their pale or yellowish flesh is covered with skin that may be red, brown, yellow, green or purple-blue. Mostly round, long or smooth, potato tubers are scattered with small “eyes”, from which the buds emerge. Potatoes are fragile and easily damaged.
Did you know a raw potato contains 79.4% of water, and it excellent source of potassium, good source of vitamin C, B6, copper, niacin, magnesium, folid acid, iron and pantothenic acid. Raw potato juice is said to be antispasmodic, diuretic, antiscorbutic and cicatrizing. It can be used as a calmative and to relieve gastric ulcers. Potato is used to treat inflammations, sunburn and other burns, and cracked skin. But do be careful on those potato exposure to light or sun can lead potatoes to form green spots that may contaain solanin, a toxic alkaloid substance. In small doses, it may cause stomach cramps, headaches or diarrhea; in large doses, it can affect the nervous system.
As with the tomato, it’s hard to imagine a time when potato wasn’t aa fundametal ingredient in British cooking, wasn’t introduced into Europe until sixteenth century. At first many Europeans were suspicious of the potato, believing it to contain harmful poisons. To be fair, there was some justification as it is from the same family as deadly nightshade, which is poisonous raw. In 1748, the French Parliament actually banned cultivation of the crop, believing it to cause leprosy, among other things, whilen during the 1770s, a period of recurrent famines, wagonloads of potatoes sent by Frederick the Great of Prussia were rejected by starving peasants, but attitudes soon began to change, thanks to the efforts of one man.
Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813) was an army chemist who was captured no less than five times by Purssian forces during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). In captivity, Parmentier and his fellow prisoners of war were forced to survive on a diet of potatoes and so, with plenty of time on his hands, the scientist began a detailed study of this unpopular food. When the Academy of Besancon later sponsored a competition to find a ‘food capable of reducing the calamities of famine’, Parmentier submitted his paper, ‘The Chemical Explanation of the Potato’, and won the first prize.
Parmentier then spent the rest of his life promoting the humble spud throughout Europe as a cheap, nutritious and realiable crop, and in 1785 finally managed to persuade Loius XVI (1754-1793) to encourage cultivation in France. The king allowed him to plant one hundred acres on royal land, close to Paris, and Parmentier engaged a heavily armed guard to protect the crop. This strange move aroused the curiosity of local farmers, who became desperate to know more about this obviously valuable crop, and as word spread among the puzzled population, Parmentier delivered what turned out to be his masterstroke. He dismissed the armed guard and, as he anticipated, the French flocked into the fields, dug up the potatoes and replanted them in their own farms, smallholdings and gardens.
The habit of growing potatoes then quickly spread throughout the continent, such that by the time of the onset of the French Revolution in 1789, they were a staple in the diet of every French family, including that of the soon-to-be-headless king and his queen, Marie Antoinette, who were both known for their love of potatoes. (So much so in the case of Marie Antoinette that she even wore a headdress of potatoe flowers at a fancy-dress ball). And for this, the name of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier has become synonymous with the potato in France. Indeed, many potato-based recipe are called after his – including hachis Parmentier, a form of French cottage or Shepherd’s pie – so the next time you pick up a bag of Parmentier potatoes at supermarket you will know exactly who he was.
How the Potato killed a million people
But one European country had already cottoned on to the benefit of potato: Ireland. Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), the British explorer known for his expeditions to the Americas and for throwing his best cloak across a puddle so Elizabeth I could walk across it, had introduced potaoes to Ireland, planting them at his Irish estate at Myrtle Grove, Youghal, near Cork. Legend has it that he then invited theb local gentry to banquet featuring potatoes in every course.Unfortunately, his cooks, who knew nothing about the vegetable, tossed out the tubers, bringing to the table a poisonous dish of boiled stems and leaves instead, which promptlymade his noble guests extremely ill. Unlike in France, where the potato worked its way from the top of society down, inIreland its popularity frew from the bottom up. Ireland’s rain-soaked climate meant that few crops propered and before the seventeenth century its peasants depended very heavily on oats. Offering two-to-four times the calories of grain per acre, and much simpler to cook, potatoes rapidly took over as the country’s main crop. The Irish became for their expertise in cooking them: the favourite street snack of eighteenth-century London was the baked potato, preferably cooked and sold by an Irishman, although its popularity was eclipsed in the nintheenth century by another Irish potato speciality, the chip.
The problem was that the Irish put all their eggs (or rather potatoes) in one basket. Depending so heavily on a single crop meant that one bad harvest represented a catatrophe. And when one bad harvest turned into four, people started dying in their thousands. At the height of the famine (around 1845), at least 1 million people died of starvation, leaving many poverty-stricken families with no choice but to emigrate. Towns became deserted and many businesses closed: with no customer, shop owners were forced to leave too. Over 1.5 million people sailed for North America and Australia, and within a few years Ireland’s population had dropped by half, from around 9 million to little more than 4 million. And it was all because of the potato.
Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters (1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
A simple ingredient tells hundred stories. Now we had know about the potato and humble potato became our favourite dish on table that everyone enjoyed it. Even this simple loaded potato skin, not much effort to put in but it has all the nutrition I need for a day too. Go on, cook your favourite dish of potato. Bon appetite!