The potato: the greatest treasure of the Incas
From food for pigs, horses and even the sumptuous dinner prepared for Louis XVI by Antoine Parmentier: this is the story of the potato
At the end of 1569, no one in Europe knew what a potato was. When it arrived, after its discovery in America, its value was not immediately appreciated – there were even some who said that it was poisonous. It was brought to the court of Pope Sixtus V, who appointed a botanist to study its potential uses. And thanks to Pierre de L’Écluse, who was that plant specialist, it reached various countries such as France and the Netherlands where they began to try it as food.
Towards the end of the 1500s, many people were eating potatoes, sailors, for example, who benefited from being able to take it on long voyages.
However, there was much resistance and prejudice. In 1630, the Parliament of Besançon in France proclaimed “Given that potato is a harmful substance and its use can cause leprosy, its cultivation from our land is prohibited.”
Before the potato triumphed, it had to wait for the arrival of a French pharmacist, Parmentier, who, having heard that soldiers fighting against the Austrians had eaten the tubers, became a supporter of this product that would also be able to feed the less well off.
The King and Queen lent him a hand and even helped launch the potato by wearing potato flowers in their hair at court. The wise Parmentier then, again in agreement with the King, posted guards around the potato fields, creating the myth among the peasants that they were guarding precious resources. The guards were removed at night, leaving the potatoes to be dug up by whoever wanted them.
There still remains a dish today known as Patate Parmentier, flavoured with a little butter and parsley.
Potatoes solved famines in many areas of Europe: in the Electoral Palatinate in Germany, and in Ireland, then part of the British Crown. Unfortunately, a fearsome parasite, phytophthora infestans (late blight), attacked Irish potatoes in the mid 1800s, causing a terrible famine which cost a million lives.
It was at that time in Italy when gastronomy opened its doors to the potato following the example of the Austrians, who then occupied large areas of Italy.
We should specify that potatoes with yellow flesh go well with salads and for frying, and ones with white flesh are excellent for croquettes and purée.
On the subject of Austrians, there is this interesting story: in 1778, they were at war with the Germans, and the soldiers of both sides were fed on potatoes, but eventually supplies ran out. Then finally, the Austrian and German soldiers emerged from their positions. And together, they declared peace.