Stefan White gave a highly entertaining and informative talk on ‘The vegetable that changed world history…the humble extraordinary potato!
The first known potatoes were grown by Indians 8,000 years ago in the Lake Titicaca region in South America and later developed by the Inca civilisation. The potato was thought to be an aphrodisiac as well as aiding childbirth!
The potato was first brought to Europe by the Spanish Conquistadors in the late 16th century and slowly spread throughout Europe. The Catholic Church ruled it was evil as no mention of it had been made in the Bible. The potato was used mainly as animal fodder and was treated with great suspicion and was only eaten by the poor. It was Mrs Beeton in her cook book of 1861 that highlighted the different ways of cooking and serving potatoes that gradually saw the upper echelons of society take to this new vegetable.
The potato is the fourth most important food crop in the world along with wheat, maize and rice. One acre of potatoes can provide food for more people than 8 acres of wheat. The potato is rich in potassium, fibre , carbohydrates and contains many vitamins to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Over 80 varieties of potato in the UK are grown commercially. The Maris Piper variety is thought to be the most versatile for mashing, roasting, steaming, baking and frying.
The carbohydrates contained in the potato are not fattening. But frying in oil and eating them with lashings of butter or cream cancel out the benefits!
It is not generally known the potato and it’s leaves contain toxins which can attack the nervous system. Potatoes should not be kept in a fridge but ideally stored out of the light in a dry cupboard to extend their life. If a potato turns green don’t eat it!
The most deadly disease is potato blight which also affects the tomato family. Ireland in the 1840’s was devastated. Over a million people died as the mainly poor population were so dependent on the potato as the mainstay of their diet.
John Vanderbilt the American billionaire, an early pioneer of the railways in America in the 19th century admonished his personal chef for the potatoes for his lunch and sent them back to the kitchen. The chef in anger sliced the potatoes thinly and then fried them as an alternative. Hence the potato crisp was born which in the UK alone the market is now worth in excess of 93 million pounds a year!
NASA are currently experimenting in Peru and the scientists are confident they will be able to grow potatoes in conditions similar to those on Mars in preparation for expeditions to the Red Planet in years to come.
The potato has come a long way since it was first discovered 8,000 years ago in the wilds of South America and who knows in the future it may be able to sustain life beyond Planet Earth in other parts of the solar system!