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You either love potatoes or you hate them, there’s nothing in the middle & those amongst us who say they hate them, are probably lying anyway. How do you hate a potato? Not possible. Mashed, creamed, whole & dripping with butter or generously drizzled with olive oil and lashings of lemon juice & salt, fried, spiced, turned into pancakes, rösti or crisps – the humble tuber finds itself near the top of my list of favorite comfort foods. But where did they come from and are they really so terribly bad for us? No. They’re not unhealthy, on the contrary, they’re very good for us.
The potato (solanum tuberosum) belongs to the nightshade family and they’re the world’s fourth largest food crop and the one we eat today apparently originated in southern Peru but recent studies suggest that there’s a link to the Chiloé Archipelago where it was cultivated as long as 10,000 years ago.
They only arrived in southern Europe in 1536, from where the vegetable spread throughout Europe and then world wide. At first they were considered poisonous but soon became a vital staple crop, especially in the north of Europe where potatoes thrived. The next recipe comes from the Alto Adige region in Italy where bread and polenta is often also made with potatoes.
It was the famine of the 1770’s and the Little Ice Age that devastated traditional European crops, that played such an important role in changing government policies with respect to the potato we know and love today (governments weren’t too keen to support cultivation of the potato at first). With the passage of time, farmers eventually learnt that when all other crops failed, potatoes could always be relied upon to feed the hungry.
The French farmers, of course, refused to plant potatoes (to their own detriment) and because of this hesitance, conditions were much worse during France’s terrible famines (caused by the population increase and the feudal social systems where the lords had total control over the vassals, preventing vassals from farming what they wished – if the lord said no, it was no).
At last, at the beginning of the 17th century, the pomme de terre was grudgingly accepted even though its true value as food was not recognized until the late 18th century, when a famous army chemist, A.A. Parmentier, recommended it as the solution to the terrible famines.
POTATOES AROUND THE WORLD
- Legend has it that Peter the Great, while travelling through western Europe in 1697, discovered potatoes and sent home the first potatoes – unfortunately the Russians were convinced it was poisonous and promptly named it the devil’s apple. It was only in the mid 1800’s that the Russians accepted them and then they couldn’t get enough!
- In Poland, King John III Sobieski introduced potatoes in the 1600’s and in Germany, although it was introduced at the end of the 1500’s, it was used to feed animals for about 200 years. Finally after the 1770 famine, Peter the Great managed to persuade them to eat potatoes and we all know how well they took them – today buying potatoes in Germany is pure pleasure for any food lover!
- A Belgian official in Mons received potatoes as a gift from a friend of the Vatican ambassador in 1587 and the next year, he sent samples on to a botanist in Vienna and from there it took off to such an extent that the Belgians promptly invented French fries.
- In 1565, Spain’s King Philip II sent a gift of potatoes to Rome for Pope Pius IV, who sent some to a cardinal in Belgium.
- The first potato tuber was planted in Denmark’s Royal Botanical Garden in 1642 but the local farmers only started cultivating them a 100 years later – around 1720. The potato was introduced by Huguenots emigrating from France.
- The Irish accepted the potato at the beginning of the 17th century and fell in love with them. Sadly, by the 19th century, potatoes were a major source of nourishment for the people and the animals but by the 1840’s, potato blight destroyed most of Ireland’s potato crop, leading to a famine that caused the deaths of one million people and the emigration of millions more.
- The Dutch brought the potato to South Africa in the 1600s when Jan van Riebeeck established a refreshment station at Cape Town.
- The potato arrived in Egypt during the 1800s when British encouraged it’s production to feed their troops. After the war, however, expansion of potato growing was hampered by the poor quality of imported seed and by farmers’ inexperience with the crop.
- Potatoes arrived in East Africa in the 19th century thanks to missionaries and European colonialists but it didn’t take off until the 1960’s.
- The potato came to Rwanda with German soldiers and Belgian missionaries in the early 20th century and today potatoes ( ibirayi) are the country’s second most important crop.
- Potatoes were introduced to East Africa by British farmers in the 1880s.
- They arrived in Uganda early in the 1900’s with missionaries from the Congo.
- In Angola Portuguese ships brought potatoes (and sweet potatoes) with them in the early 16th century. While sweet potatoes were widely adopted by local farmers, potato growing was confined to the Bié Plateau, where altitude and the Antarctic ocean current produce a suitable climate for potato cultivation.
- Potatoes arrived in Ethiopia with a German immigrant in 1858 where is it planted as an insurance against crop failures today.
- Potatoes reached the Chinese coast aboard ships from Europe during the 17th century and was introduced to central China by Russian traders around the same time.
- The potato reached India in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, most likely aboard ships from Portugal.
- A British ambassador, Sir John Malcolm introduced the potato to the royal court of Persia during the early 1800s – for a while it was known as Malcolm’s plum but it’s known as the earth apple by Iranians.
- A British governor introduced the potato to Bengal in the 1770s and within a century it was a well established garden vegetable.
- Potato cultivation has been officially encouraged in Turkey since 1872 and today it is the Middle East’s biggest producer after Iran,
- The potato arrived in Japan when Dutch traders established an enclave in Nagasaki at the beginning of the 17th century
- The first record of potatoes in Nepal dates back to 1793 but it was an insignificant crop for the next 180 years. Some researchers believe that its early introduction to the Himalayan mountains helped support the rise of Buddhist civilization in northern Nepal.
- James Cook had a significant amount of potatoes on board his ship in 1770 and the cultivation began about 18 years later when the Brits colonized the country – they thrived then as they do now, throughout the country.
- The Dutch East India Company brought potatoes to Indonesia around 1795, and within 15 years the kentang holanda (Dutch Potato) was accepted and grown by Batak farmers in the highlands of northern Sumatra.
- Explorers introduced potatoes the Maoris of New Zealand long before the Brits arrived in the country in the mid 1800s – it thrived and today red- and blue-skinned Māori potatoes are recognized local varieties.
- Although potatoes were grown in South America for millennia, the first potatoes in the USA were only planted in 1719 in New Hampshire – the first French fries were served at the White House 80 years later to president Thomas Jefferson.
- Potatoes were already being grown by settlers in New Brunswick on Canada’s Atlantic coast as early as the mid-1600s.
- The first reference to potatoes in Cuba dates from 1798 when farmer complained about a shortage of suitable seed potato – many generations of farmers declined from growing potatoes because many varieties just didn’t grow there.
- Even though Brazil is on the same continent as Peru, cultivation of potatoes was virtually unknown until the late 1800s when European immigrants introduced them.
- In 1538 a Spanish visitor to the central mountain ranges in present-day Colombia discovered that the locals were growing a kind of earth truffle that was, probably, potatoes since Colombia lies along the northern edge of the Andean centre of potato origin
- Mexico lies within the potato’s area of origin.
Although the potato originated in the Andes, recently DNA evidence indicates that varieties grown around the world today were developed mainly from Chilean cultivars. While the Andean potato predominated in Europe in the 1700s, germoplasm introduced from Chile became predominant in the 1800s.
The English word is derived from the Spanish patata – since they brought it to Europe in the first place, it’s quite understandable. As for the etymology, the Spanish word is a compound of Taino batata (sweet potato) Quechua papa (potato and the English word, potato originally referred to a type of sweet potato because the English confused the two.
Today 1000’s of cultivars of different varieties of potatoes (see images above) still grown in the Andes where it thrives – because only a very small amount of potato varieties were introduced in Europe, the crop became vulnerable to disease and it was probably the reason for late blight that spread through the poorer communities of western Ireland and caused the Great Irish Famine. Today China is the world’s larges potato producing country (nearly a third of the world’s potatoes are harvested in China and India)
Potatoes are rich in vitamins and minerals and also contains an assortment of phytochemicals (carotenoids and polyphenols). A medium-sized 150 g potato with the skin provides 27 mg of vitamin C , 620 mg of potassium, 0.2 mg vitamin B6 and trace amounts of thiamin, riboflavin, folate, niacin, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc. The fibre content of a potato with skin (2 g) is equivalent to that of many whole grain breads, pastas, and cereals.
HEALTH GIVING PROPERTIES OF POTATO JUICE
The information below has not been scientifically verified by us and before embarking on any cure of this nature, it would be prudent to discuss it with your medical practitioner.
- Raw potato juice has anti-inflammatory properties and may help to eliminate acidity.
- It is good for stomach ulcers and other stomach disorders.
- Raw potato juice fasting has been used in treatment of rheumatoid arthritis since World War II – it should be diluted with lukewarm water.
- Raw potato juice is a good liver cleanser if taken in the morning 30 minutes before breakfast.
- Never use the juice of a green potato or potatoes with black spots, as it may be toxic (similarly never eat green potatoes).
- Due to it’s neutral taste, raw potato juice can be mixed with other vegetable juices, for example, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, etc.