The potato - early days in England

The potato is a native of South America, having been found wild both in Buenos Ayres and Chili. Sir Joseph Banks considers that the potato was first brought into Europe from the mountainous parts of South America, near Quito, to Spain, in the early 1500s. From there they spread to Italy where they were called "taratroufli", the same name as the truffle. The potato was received in Vienna in 1588 by Clusius, from the governor of Mons, who had got it from one of the Pope's attendants. In Germany they gave it the name "cartoffel".

The potato arrived in England from Virginia, brought here by the colonists sent there in 1584 by Sir Walter Raleigh. They arrived back here in 1586 and Joseph Banks says that they probably brought the potato with them. Thomas Herriot, in a report on the country, says that a plant called "openank" has roots as large as a walnut and others much larger; they grow together in damp soil and are good food, either boiled or roasted". Gerarde, in his "Herbal", 1597, gives a picture of the potato and calls it "Potato of Virginia", and it seems to have kept this name until about 1640, to distinguish it from the sweet potato.

The sweet potato, observed Sir Joseph Banks, was used as a delicacy long before the introduction of our potatoes. It was imported from Spain and the Canaries, and was supposed to "restore decayed vigour" (no prizes for guessing what that means).

The potato was first planted by Sir Walter Raleigh on his estate of Youghall, near Cork, and Gough says that it was cultivated in Ireland before its value was recognised in England. They were carried over to Lancashire, according to Gerarde, who had some in his garden in 1597, but only for use as a delicate dish, not as common food. They were roasted, steeped in sugar, sack (wine), baked with marrow and spices, and even preserved and candied.

The Royal Horticultural Society took some measures in 1633 to encourage more widespread use of potatoes. In gardening books of the late 1600s, they are spoken of rather slightingly, as "food for poor people", "muched used for bread in Ireland and America" and as "food for swine or cattle". Even John Evelyn seems to have a poor opinion of them. But the use of potatoes gradually spread, as their excellent qualities became better understood. It was near the middle of the 1700s that they were known over most of the country, and since that time they have been extensively cultivated.

In 1796, in the county of Essex, about 1700 acres of potatoes were planted for the supply of the London market. Fields of potatoes are seen in the other counties bordering on the capital, and many ship-loads are imported annually. Potatoes, as human food, are, next to wheat, of the greatest importance in the eye of the political economist.

(extract from Loudon's Encyclopedia of Agriculture, 1847; paraphrased by ND.)

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