Potatoes and Northern Europe

04 May

While I was eating potatoes and eggs for dinner tonight, I remembered a quote I had read about the importance of the potatoes in Northern Europe from Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.

When the potato got to Europe, it changed the course of European history. Before the potato, the northern tier of Europe, the population was relatively small and was held back by regular famines caused by failures of the grain harvest.

The further north you go, the dicier it is to grow wheat. And so the center of gravity in Europe, before the potato, was the Mediterranean, where you could grow grain more reliably. The potato did very well at the more northerly areas. It did very well in wetter areas, and it did very well in really poor soils.

So suddenly there was this vast new source of calories that could underwrite the growth of the population, such as never would have happened without the potato.

Since one individual can grow so much food, you need fewer people in the fields to support an urban population. So it’s really hard to imagine the Industrial Revolution proceeding as it would without the potato to kind of support it. This New World food remade the Old World.

Some evidence to Northern Europeans lack of ability to produce and harvest lots of wheat is the fact that Northern Europeans and their descendants are much more likely to have Celiac Disease than Southern Europeans, who rely a lot more on wheat, eating loads of bread and pasta.

So, the Spanish, bringing the potato to Europe from America, spawned Europe’s population growth which led the industrialization of the northern region and a subsequent shift of Europe’s power from Italy and Spain to England, Northern France and Germany—which remains to this day. Northern Europe’s success was—and still is—dependent on the potato.

Interestingly enough, it took the potato quite a while to catch on in Europe. It was initially used by only the poorest and by sailors, who found it could keep scurvy at bay.

Gradually, the Spanish realized that potatoes were perfect food for sailors on ships returning from Peru. . . . As early as 1570, potatoes could be purchased in markets in Seville, and, by 1573, they were being fed to hospital patients in other parts of Spain.

Through the first half of the seventeenth century, potatoes were eaten primarily by the poor and soldiers in Spain. . . .

From Spain, potatoes spread to all parts of Europe. Spanish ships carried the vegetable to Italy around 1560, making that country the first after Spain to eat potatoes on an appreciable scale.

The inventive Italians were quick to incorporate New World foods into their diet. It then spread throughout most of the world through Europe’s trading empire.

By 1600, the potato had entered Austria, Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, England, Germany, and, most likely, Portugal and Ireland. Some historians claim that it was Basque fishermen who first brought potatoes to Ireland, when they came ashore to dry their catches on their return voyages from Newfoundland. Others maintain it was Sir Walter Raleigh who planted the first potatoes on his estate in Ireland. The potato was introduced in India, possibly as early as 1615, and had reached the most remote parts of China by 1643. Beginning about 1730, the Scottish Highlands adopted potatoes as completely as Ireland had.

But the potato would have to undergo de-stigmatisation before it could be fully disseminated. Many priests and peasants feared its evil nightshade power (as do our modern nutrition health gurus).

Aside from its odd, unaesthetic appearance and initially bitter taste, the tuber was feared for a variety of reasons. Since it was not mentioned in the Bible, it was often associated with the devil. As a consequence, in the north of Ireland and in Scotland, Protestants flatly refused to plant them. In Catholic Ireland, to be on the safe side, peasants sprinkled their seed potatoes with holy water and planted them on Good Friday.

Another source of prejudice against the potato was its membership in the nightshade family . . . So great was the fear that, when Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered his people to plant potatoes in 1744, they pulled them up. Frederick was forced to post soldiers to guard the crops. Ten years later, in 1754, the king of Sweden also ordered his subjects to grow potatoes. Yet, when famine struck Kolberg in 1774, wagonloads of potatoes sent by Frederick were rejected.

Frederick the Great really was great by the way. But I’ll save that for another blog post. It took the French, who also initially reviled the potato, to make it both acceptable haute cuisine and as a symbol of the republic’s dedication to liberte, egalite and fraternite.

The French were no more enamored of the potato at first than any other Europeans. Legrand d’Aussy, in his 1782 Histoire de la vie privée des Français (History of the private life of the French) wrote that the pasty, indigestible tuber should be eliminated from aristocratic households and left to the poor. . . . .

By 1780, potatoes were the chief food of the Pyrenean highlands. By 1840, the potato was well established in French cuisine, making its way in through the soup pot, where it added bulk and absorbed flavors. . . .

In 1793, during the “Reign of Terror,” the French people celebrated potatoes as their republican salvation. Even the royal Tuileries gardens were symbolically converted into a potato field. . . .

Potatoes gradually acquired a place in haute cuisine. Collinet, the chef for King Louis Phillippe (reigned 1830–1848), accidentally created the famous pommes soufflées (puffed potatoes) when he plunged fried potatoes into extremely hot oil to reheat them when the king was late for dinner.

And then there’s one of those odd twists in history where the potato made its way back to North America by way of Europe, rather than directly through South America. It took the Irish immigrants to entrench full scale potato eating to America; and the common potato we eat is the Irish potato, a breed that’s undergone modification in Europe for almost 300 years now, and far removed from the much more colorful and flavorful Amerindian varieties.

These potatoes, of which there are thousands more varieties, are more nutritious than the European type; less sugary, starchy, with more flavor and vitamins. One downside, however, is that they do contain more of the harmful substances that the European peasants were so worried about and are more likely to harbor viruses. I’ve heard stories of people eating too many potatoes in the Andean highlands and falling into a deep 12 hour sleep with little memory of what happened due to the large amount of solanine in these potatoes, which was bred out in the European varieties eaten in most places around the world.

But even the Irish variety is a nutritious feast, despite what our health overlords will have you think. The only real downside is its high glycemic index—which means you should just eat it with an ample serving of butter or sour cream.

You can actually get all the nutrients you need to survive on a diet of potatoes, milk and oatmeal. Sounds pretty damn Irish to me. Actually, this guy argues that that’s what they were basically eating for quite some time, and that there were reports of them being quite healthy on that diet.

Before the Great Famine, the traditional Irish peasant meal consisted mainly of potatoes, milk, oats, beans, barley, and bread. Potatoes were the mainstay. As the years grew leaner, dairy products largely disappeared from the Irish diet, since poverty forced many farmers to sell their milk to pay rent. By the time the famine hit, the peasants were eating pretty much just potatoes, supplemented with some salt fish and oatmeal.

How did the Irish do on this diet? We can’t be certain — nobody was conducting nutrition studies in those days. But there’s reason to believe they were healthier than you might guess. In the century before the famine, Ireland had the highest birthrate in western Europe. Some credit potatoes, saying the availability of easy-to-grow, easy-to-cook spuds made it practical to raise large families. Telling evidence on this score, one historian writes, “is that the Irish in general and Irish women in particular were widely described as healthy and good-looking.”

Not that that’s the most scientific analysis, but the trio of Irish women I met the other night were certainly Celtic beauties.

The only downside to that monolithic diet was, well, first they stopped being able to afford milk and then they got hit by the potato famine, so that, even if Ireland had the highest birthrate in Europe (still does by the way) its modern population is only about half of what it was a couple hundred years ago.


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