Of all the European countries, Ireland embraced the potato more than any other.
In a comparison of potato agriculture across 37 countries, Ireland had the sixth highest production of potatoes, but this was achieved on a very limited acreage with Ireland ranking fourth lowest in per cent of suitable land used for potato production.
But the potato as a popular crop and staple was a long slow process.
A shaky start
The slow uptake of the potato into everyday cuisine was due to the widespread belief in ancient times that potatoes were deleterious to health from mild flatulence to the horrors of leprosy and many a malady in between.
To begin with, the potato in full bloom looked like it was related to the deadly nightshade family. Extract of deadly nightshade had been used as a cosmetic for ladies, partly to colour their hair, but it wasn’t long before the Roman gentry realised the lethal nature of even small doses of deadly nightshade, leading to acute toxicity of the nervous system causing confusion, hallucinations, delirium, convulsions and death.
But there were other reasons why potatoes were shunned.
To begin with, potatoes grew underground, unlike oats for porridge or wheat for bread, and that didn’t go down well with folks at the time. According to prevailing dietetic principles, potatoes were among the lowliest crops in the Great Chain of Being. Writing in 1548, William Forrest, a noted Catholic priest and poet declared: ‘Our English nature cannot live by roots.’
And it wasn’t just fear of disease or suspicion of the underground productivity of the potato which hindered its uptake; there were moral issues raised. There is no mention of potatoes in the Bible which was used to argue the case that if God had intended us to eat these underground tubers, He would have given some hint in the Old or New Testament.
Potatoes were eaten by the poor and also fed to pigs and this branding of the potato with peasantry and piggery was certain to doom its uptake in the middle and upper classes.
All that would change, starting in the military prisons of the King of Prussia, an ardent enthusiast of the potato. Among his prisoners was a French military pharmacist, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who fought with the House of Hanover in the Seven Years War. Captured no less than five times (history does not explain his releases or escapes) he was fed on potatoes and soon realised their nutritional worth.
The French royal family are said to have themselves promoted the potato. Promenading around the spacious gardens of Versailles, Marie-Antoinette would wear the purple potato flower in her hair while Louis would wear one in his buttonhole.
Very quickly, the potato was adopted in France and then spread across Europe, north to the low countries and the British Isles and East to Russia where its cultivation was championed by Catherine the Great.
The potato is a crop which can grow almost anywhere. The daytime sun promotes the above ground leafy foliage, while the cool nights foster the growth of the starchy underground tubers.
At the time that the potato was adopted by European farmers, a three crop rotation system was in use. Crop rotation reduced the scale of pest attacks and allowed soil to better balance its nutrients. Typically, one-third was used for winter and spring cereal, another for beans and other pulses that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, and the third was left fallow.
During that nine month period of fallow, weeds would thrive only to be ploughed back into the soil to restore its nutritional balance. However, that third plot could easily accommodate the cultivation of potatoes with a growing period of just three to four months.
The potato was also a crop that could yield more calories and essential nutrients per hectare that any crop prevalent at the time. Compared to wheat, potatoes had a 50 per cent higher yield, a six-fold output of calories and required less than one-third of the land wheat would need to provide 1,000 calories per day for 365 days.
One major study suggested that the potato could explain a quarter of population increase in Europe between 1700 and 1900. Moreover, it is estimated that up to a third of the growth in urbanisation over the same period can be attributed to the potato.
Potato consumption increased height up to 0.8 of an inch. Indeed, the records of the East India Company show that potato-eating Irish recruits were taller than their English counterparts by an inch.
Most rural Irish labourers had gardens for the growth of potatoes which could feed their family for up to nine months of the year with oats taking over during the late spring and early summer. They would have enough surplus potatoes to feed a pig along with buttermilk following the sale of butter from their one cow.
However, English opinion of this reliance on potatoes varied. The Earl of Shrewsbury, Lord High Steward of Ireland, was not at all convinced that the potato would be good for Ireland:
‘The Indians in America live wretchedly enough at times, but they have no knowledge of a better condition, and as they are hunters, they have every now and then a productive chase, and are able to make a number of feast days in the year. Many Irishmen have but one day on which they eat flesh, namely, on Christmas-day. Every other day they feed on potatoes, and nothing but potatoes. Now this is inhuman; for the appetite and stomach of man claim variety in food, and nowhere else do we find human beings gnawing, from year’s end to year’s end, at the same root, berry, or weed. There are animals who do so, but human beings nowhere except in Ireland.’
In contrast, Arthur Young, the English agriculturist who, unlike the Earl of Shrewsbury, made an extensive visit to Ireland, wrote thus of the reliance of the peasantry on the potato:
‘I heard it stigmatized as being unhealthy, and not sufficiently nourishing for the support of hard labour; but this opinion is amazing in a country, many of whose poor people are as athletic in their form, as robust, and as capable of enduring labour, as any upon earth... When I see the people of a country in spite of political oppression with well-formed vigorous bodies, and their cottages swarming with children; when I see their men athletic, and their women beautiful, I know not how to believe them subsisting on an unwholesome food.’
The population growth of Ireland was spectacular in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: 1.4 million in 1600, 2.9 million in 1718, 6.8 million in 1821 and 8.2 million in 1841.
Today potatoes remain one of the most widely eaten crops in the world. Unlike grains, pasta and rice, potatoes don’t travel well and are thus hard to brand to the benefit of the multinational food industry.
You will see many advertisements on television for pasta, different rice and cereal products from breads to mueslis, but you won’t see an advertisement for potatoes. Sadly, in many European countries the consumption of potatoes by younger consumers is declining with the advent of easily prepared rice or pasta with all sorts of attractive sauces.
But when these younger people start to think of food in terms of sustainability and high nutrient density, the local potato will again have its day.
Extracted from Food through the Ages: A Popular History by Mike Gibney; €19.95 paperback; illustrated; published by The Liffey Press. Mike Gibney is a professor emeritus of food and health at University College Dublin. Food Through The Ages provides a look at the history and development of the different foods we eat every day.