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The history of the potato

The history of the potato goes back to long before the days of the Incas. Finds on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and on the coast of Peru uncovered much earlier examples, dating back to around 400 B.C. Around the size of a nut or a small apple, these vegetables were red, golden yellow or dark blue in colour.

In the mid-16th century, potatoes were brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadores. This new plant not only caused a stir amongst botanists and scientists, it also gave governments throughout Europe food for thought. They attempted to persuade farmers to grow the crop as they desperately struggled to cope with the constant threat of famine and war.

In some cases, drastic measures were called for to overcome the farmers’ irrational belief that potatoes were poisonous and responsible for the spread of a glut of maladies including syphilis and leprosy. In 1756 King Friedrich of Prussia issued his famous potato diktat forcing farmers to plant the crop in a bid to keep starvation at bay. Faced with considerable resistance he threatened to cut off the ears and noses of all those who failed to comply.

It is believed that a pair of priests were responsible for finally persuading farmers in Austria to plant the crop. After this point many smallholders planted potatoes on their own plots, and it quickly became an essential foodstuff for large numbers of the population. The potato is now a staple for around two-thirds of people on earth, and the third most important plant crop.

There are thousands of varieties available worldwide, of which just a tiny fraction is cultivated with any regularity. The international potato centre in Peru is home to the largest genetic database, containing 3,694 varieties. However, the American potato growers association officially recognises around 4,000 types of potatoes.

Nutritional information

The potato is the main source of vitamin C for most of the world’s population. Water accounts for around 75% of each potato, with starches and carbohydrates contributing a further 17%. Potatoes also contain 2.1% protein, 1.3% fibre, surprising amounts of vitamin C, virtually zero fat, and a host of vital trace elements such as folic acid, potassium and iron.

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters (source: Wikimedia)


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