Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
February 20, 2018
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Mangia Bene

The record of the potato’s exact place of origin and how it came to the Mediterranean is scanty. The latest evidence for its origin points in several directions: to the Chiloé region of Chile, to southern Peru, and to Bolivia-northern Argentina. In any case it seems that the first potato to reach Europe arrived in Spain and must have come from Peru and transhiped through Cartagena in Columbia in the mid-sixteenth century.

The potato was domesticated in the High Andes as early as seven to ten thousand years ago and was widely cultivated by Inca times. Because wild potato tubers taste bitter and contain toxic amounts of alkaloids, the earliest intensive cultivation of the plant in prehistoric times must have been to recognize and select plants that were less bitter and less toxic. It is not known when this happened but somewhere between 2000 and 5000 B.C., concurrent with the domestication of the llama, seems likely. The potatoes originally introduced to Europe were quite knobby and unlike the smooth ovals we see today that is a result of cultivators working towards that end. It was also at least a hundred years after its arrival before the potato came to be accepted in any way as a food in the Mediterranean.

The commonly accepted story of the discovery of the potato by Europeans tells of its being found in 1537 or 1538 by the Spanish Conquistador and historian, Pedro de Cieza de León, in the Cauca Valley of Colombia and introduced as a curiosity to Europe by 1573. Pedro de Cieza de León wrote about the potato in his Chronicles of Peru published in 1540. The great French botanist Carolus Clusius went to Spain in 1564 with the express purpose of describing rare plants to be found there. He published his results in 1576 and never mentioned the potato. It seems that so attentive and careful a scholar as Clusius, the greatest botanist of his day, would not have overlooked the potato had it been growing in Spain, although it may have been in much localized areas. There is evidence that Clusius received two tubers and a fruit in 1588 from Philippe de Sivry of Belgium and is credited with introducing the potato to Germany and France. We have definite proof of the potato being eaten at the Sangre hospital in Seville in 1573, so it must have reached Spain from the New World in 1569-70.

(photo: Sarah Swaine)

It has been assumed that the potato continued its journey north from Spain into France and the rest of northern Europe. In fact, it seems the potato entered Europe in two places, one being Spain. But it may very well have come to France from the other direction, from England. As with the Spanish potato, the French potato also begins its journey in South America. It went first to Virginia, a result of Indian trading, and then to England after the first permanent English colonies was established there in the early seventeenth century. English botanists of the time thought the potato was native to Virginia. The potato then traveled to the continent, first to Belgium, then northern France and to Switzerland. The celebrated French agriculturalist Olivier de Serres devotes a chapter to the potato in his Théâtre d’agriculture st mesnage des champs, published in 1600 and tells us that the potato came to France from Switzerland, arriving first in the Dauphiné and then traveling south to his native Languedoc.

Three tubers, the potato, the sweet potato, and the sunchoke all entered Europe from the New World about the same time, but it was the potato that became the dominant food. It probably won this race because it was easier to digest and its taste was bland enough to allow for greater uses in a household economy. Most importantly, it was the starch in potatoes--its caloric value--which made it as attractive as a food. The potato was only grown in small gardens in Spain in the last part of the sixteenth century, but by the seventeenth century we see the potato more and more in the cuisines of Spain and Naples, then a dominion of the Spanish Bourbons. The introduction of the potato and its widespread cultivation helped reduce famines in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.