The History of the Potato, Part I
September 08, 2014
I'm researching potatoes in a little project for Karlsson's Vodka. Today we'll look at how the potato came to Europe.
As mentioned in the previous post, potatoes are native to the Andes mountains and over 3000 varieties are found there.
The Quechua people of the Andes invented a way to preserve potatoes: They would put them out at night when the temperatures were freezing, and covered them during the day. Then they were soaked in water and put out to freeze again. The next day they walked on the potatoes to squeeze out the water content, then spread them out to dehydrate in the sun. They had basically made dehydrated potato flakes like in your box of instant potatoes.
The first description of a potato by a European was published in 1601 from observing potato harvest in 1537. The author described them as a type of truffle. The first print reference to potatoes by name came from observations from another explorer around this same time.
Sir Francis Drake is often incorrectly credited with introducing the potato to Europe.
The first potatoes to reach Europe were brought by the Spanish by the 1570s, probably in the previous decade. They seem to have first been grown in Spain but were found in Germany, Italy, and Belgium by the late 1500s.
They were probably not first grown on the mainland, but on the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain - which is a pretty amazing point of entry for the potato to come to Europe, because that was the point of exit for the sugarcane that was taken to the New World by Columbus.
The potato slowly became a "plant of interest" around Europe according to the book Potato by John Reader. In 1596 they were described in one botany book, and in 1597 it was first illustrated by another botanist John Gerard.
Sweet potatoes were grown in Europe by the early 1600s and many accounts of potatoes confused regular and sweet potatoes - it makes for confusing research still.
Shakespeare refers to potatoes as aphrodisiacs around 1600; a common thought at the time.
In the next post we'll continue looking at potato history in Europe.
The potatoes used in Karlsson's Vodka are called "new" or "virgin" potatoes. These are the first potatoes grown in the southwestern tip of Sweden that are harvested before their skin fully develops- when the plants are still flowering. They're considered a delicacy when the first ones are pulled from the ground; sort of the Beaujolais Nouveau of potatoes. I visited Sweden a few years ago and wrote about how Karlsson's is made here.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.