16th August 1845. The Not So Humble Potato.
Sharpes Express, King Edward, Duke of York, Fortyfold, Pink Fir Apple, Roseval, Beauty of Bute…
It was Today in 1845 that a Doctor Salter wrote in Gardeners’ Chronicle of a disease which had been affecting potatoes in the south of England since July.
The disease had been prevalent in America since 1844 and so rapid and devastating was its progress that the disease was recorded in Scotland, and Ireland where it was the staple food of the peasantry.
The result was widespread famine in Ireland particularly, with its impact only being alleviated by the banker Rothschild who initiated The British Relief Association to which the Queen contributed, and emigration.
Those of a supernatural persuasion ascribed the ‘blight’ to the works of the devil before the Rev. Miles Berkeley broke ranks in 1846 and identified it as a fungus, Phytophthora infestans.
The first mention of the potato was in 1586 when Sir Thomas Harriot arrived in Plymouth with this first product of the South American, Andes.(1)
Initially the peasantry here avoided the potato (Solanum tuberosum), especially as all parts of the plant, apart from the tuber, are poisonous and not until the Napoleonic Wars food shortage did it come into favour helped by a 1795 Board of Agriculture, ‘Hints Respecting the Cultivation and Use of the Potato’.
Now we know the potato is highly nutritious lacking only Calcium and Vitamins A and D, is especially rich in Vitamin C, and is simple to cultivate.
Eventually the humble ‘spud’ lead to such staple, regional dishes as Cobbledy and Coddle (Ireland), Lobscouse (Lancashire), Clapshot (Scotland), Bedfordshire Clanger and any number of pies, pasties and dishes generally, not forgetting the ubiquitous fish and chips.(2)
The decline in the potato market in the 1930.s was blamed on ‘slimming‘, with many diets aimed to transform every flat-footed kitchen drudge into a sylph.
Thus was born the Potato Marketing Board in a campaign to, ‘convince the fair sex that they are on the wrong lines when they cut out potatoes to get slim’.
So three cheers for the potato in all its guises: chipped, baked, jacketed, crisped, (by Mr. Smith in the 1930.s), mashed, boiled …(3)
(1) Ten years later in 1596 a member of the same family came into Britain, the Aztec tomatl or tomato, which owing to its red skin the fruit was regarded as dangerous, not surprising as many members of the genus Solanum such as Deadly Nightshade (belladonna) are poisonous.
(2) The meals of Parson Woodforde’s 18thc diaries show that beef, pork and game courses follow each other with barely a glimpse of vegetables.
(3) Smith’s Crisps were the favourite snack until competition of the 1960.s. (SEE MY PREVIOUS POST ON CRISPS).
bbc.co.uk/blogs/gardening. Jennifer Redmond. 24.1.2011/Pic of Potatoes.
history-magazine.com/potatoes. The Impact of Potatoes. Jeff Chapman.