Who would have thought that the humble potato is in fact a widely travelled plant that in the course of its journey has changed world history? The potato plant originates in the high Andes, probably in the vicinity of Lake Titicaca, where native Aymara and Quetchua people are believed to have cultivated numerous different varieties, probably for about 7000 years. In its homeland there are literally hundreds of varieties - large or small, white, pink, purple or black in colour, some hairy, others displaying carnivorous habits by growing hairs that can dissolve approaching insects. Another species merely imitates the scent of decomposing insects in order to warn off any predators.
Correspondingly, the actual potato plant also varies greatly in terms of its growth habits. Native species may be highly frost resistant or hugging the ground closely to protect themselves against the fierce winds of the high Andes. In general, the leaves are dark and deeply cut, while flowers closely resemble those of the bittersweet nightshade.
The edible part, which we call 'potato' and generally refer to as a 'root vegetable', is in fact not a root at all, but a specially adapted swollen storage organ that grows at the end of the roots and is botanically known as a 'tuber'. These tubers serve as the plant's energy storage system and consist largely of starch.
Native species of potatoes are often rather small and have many deep 'eyes', which are in fact the dormant buds from which new plants can sprout in vegetative reproduction. Potatoes are also able to reproduce sexually, through pollination, an important feature for plant breeders, who can thus cross particular varieties for their different attributes, a process that is not possible via vegetative reproduction, which produces offspring that is identical to the parent plant.
It is important to note that the green parts of the potato plant are poisonous to humans and animals due to an alkaloid known as 'solanine'. Solanine is also present in tubers that have been exposed to light and can be recognized by the green discolouration of the potato skin. It is important to remove these green parts prior to cooking and also to cut out any eyes that are beginning to sprout.
The high Andes mountains is an extremely hostile environment for plants. The days are short, the sun can be intense, yet the nights are often frigidly cold or freezing. Furthermore a sharp wind torments mountain plants. These environmental stresses have given rise to very particular adaptations that are able to withstand them. In the Andes potatoes are one of four major root/tuber staple crops. There are about 200 different wild types found from Venezuela to Chile, with the highest concentration around Lake Titicaca.
Indigenous farmers often plant many different varieties together in order to better withstand any possible disasters. I.e. they will grow in the same plot varieties that are resistant to draught and others that can withstand heavy rainfall and also some that are resistant to particular insect pests. In this way they can ensure that even if some of the crop fails, another part will survive and probably thrive. In general, potatoes are not very demanding plants and will grow in many different kinds of soils and environmental conditions. Although originally a high altitude crop, their adaptation to lower altitudes began early on in their cultivation history and varieties developed that were suitable for growing in the dry coastal regions of Peru. However, potatoes never adapted to the hot and humid tropics, although some varieties are found in the cloud forest.
Potatoes are not only an important food for people, but are also used to feed livestock.
In their native habitat potatoes enjoy a long and mutually beneficial co-relationship with humans. Their appetite for nitrogen rich soil has made them keen volunteers that enjoy the close proximity of human habitations, due to the common human habit of producing nitrogen rich waste heaps wherever they go. Thus, it is assumed that even long before people started to consciously grow them, the potato was a natural camp follower and companion plant to the pea family (beans), which fixes nitrogen in the soil.
Fossilized remains found in Chillca Canyon dating back to about 5000 BC suggest that these could have been one of the earliest cultivated types, though both cultivated and wild varieties were used. The descent to lower altitudes was a gradual one. Archaeological finds in these areas date to much later time periods, around 3500 BC. Representations are also found in artefacts such as potato shaped urns that were placed in graves.
The ancient people of Peru revered the potato and many varieties were grown solely for religious and ceremonial purposes. So central was the potato to the Aymara culture, that they measured time in terms of the period of time it takes to cook a potato.
The indigenous people of the high mountains were also so first to come up with an ingenious method of preserving potatoes for later use. Making use of the peculiar climatic conditions of the habitat, they developed a method of freeze drying them. At night the spuds would freeze. The following day, when they thawed again, they were mashed and watered, only to be frozen again at night. This was repeated several times until no moisture remained and the resulting substance could be ground into a fine, starchy flour that could be used for baking, but was usually added to soups and stews. This product is known as chuño and still forms a staple food for the Andean people, though it does not taste much like the 'instant potato' mixes we might be familiar with that commonly populate our supermarket shelves.
Another, similar method omitted the freezing step. The potatoes were soaked in water for an extended period of time until they had become half rotten, before being further processed. The resulting product is reported to be rather strong in flavour and may take some getting used to.
More like what we know as instant potatoes, is another product known as 'papas secas' - or dehydrated potatoes. To produce them the spuds are boiled, peeled, cut into chunks and sun dried. This form of potato constitutes a common staple, which is served with meat and stews and is especially popular in more urban and coastal areas, where it can even be purchased at supermarkets.
Potatoes also had a spiritual significance. They were associated with fertility, abundance and regeneration. Today, their ceremonial use has been transferred to the Catholic religion and they are used in the worship of the Virgin Mary on her festival day of the Immaculate Conception, which takes place in June.
The Spanish Conquistadores were the first Westerners to encounter the potato. As the story goes, Castellano, an early conquistador, and his party of looters once stormed a peasant village in the Andes. But instead of the pot of gold they were hoping to find, they only found a store of potatoes, which they believed to be some kind of truffles. This misidentification later gave rise to the German name for potatoes 'Kartoffel', which is derived from tartuffle, which denotes 'truffles'. Sometime between 1540 and 1565, they sent some back to the court of Spain as a sample of the indigenous flora of Cusco, as was their habit. This seemed to have been a red-skinned potato with large 'eyes'. The botanist Carolus Clusius was the first to describe and depict this new plant, which had large purple-white flowers. Several dispatches of potatoes were sent back to Europe from different parts of the new world and by 1570 they were being planted near the port towns where they had arrived and they were already recognized as a useful food that could sustain sailors during their arduous and lengthy sea voyages, not to forget their rich vitamin C content, which helped to control scurvy.
England was introduced to the potato via a different route. It is often said that Raleigh or Drake were responsible for bringing the spuds back to Britain, but evidence suggests that it was in fact John Hawkins in 1565, a slave merchant from Santa Fe in Venezuela. Furthermore, the type of potato he brought back was a white potato, not a purple one, like those that had been introduced to Spain.
At first there was much confusion about this new crop. The English herbalist Gerard believed potatoes to be native to north America and named it 'batata virginiana'. He was fascinated by the plant and in his portray which precedes his 'English Herball' he is depicted with a sprig of the potato plant that shows the flowers, leaves and fruit. Sir Walter Raleigh, may have been responsible for introducing the potato to Ireland, though he is said to have known so little about the plant that he tried to eat the berries instead of the tubers.
As was the custom in those days, exotic new plants from the colonies were passed around from one royal court to another as 'royal gifts'. The potato also spread among herbalists and apothecaries, though at first ignorance was great as to how to use it. Subsequently there was much resistance to their adaptation as a food plant - which seems hard to believe, considering their present, firmly established position as the world's 4th most significant staple crop. In fact, so common are potatoes in the Western diet that most people have no idea that it was only recently introduced and most of what we now consider our national cuisines, be it in the US, Britain, Ireland, Germany, Poland or any other central European country, includes potatoes in innumerable variations. And even the emerging global 'fastfood diet' of burgers and chips, features potatoes - albeit, probably in their least healthful form.
When the potato was first introduced, acceptance did not come so easy. This may partly have been due to the fact that people recognized their relationship with other nightshade plants, and at that time Europeans were not familiar with edible species of nightshades. This family includes plants that were associated with witchcraft, magic and poisonous plants: henbane, thornapple, belladonna and mandrake were familiar and feared medieval herbs that were used for mostly dubious purposes. A Scottish clergyman deemed the potato unfit for human consumption on the grounds that it had not been mentioned in the Bible. Negative remarks from such authoritative sources as the Swiss botanist Caspar Bauhin, who declared that potatoes cause wind, leprosy and supposedly would 'incite Venus', only reinforced the habitual reluctance to accept a novel food among the peasantry.
Another factor for their initial rejection was probably biological. The species that were introduced to Europe were adapted to the short day cycle of the Andes and it took time before they adapted to the different day rhythm of Europe, which meant that the first plantations resulted in plants with long root systems and small potatoes. Furthermore, it is often reported that there was a scratching sensation when eating the tubers, which was disagreeable and believed to be harmful. This was probably due to the much higher solanine content of those early varieties.
But the nation's leaders quickly became wise to the many advantages the potato had to offer to their people and in some cases went so far as to order them to grow the crop by threat of force. By the middle of the 18th century potatoes were grown throughout Europe and proved to be a veritable 'population fuel'. Providing far more calories per acre than the traditional staple foods, such a wheat and oats (1 acre provided about 6 tonnes of potatoes compared to 1 ton of oats or wheat grown on the same amount of space). At last there was something that came close to 'food security' in the old World - or so everybody thought. Potatoes saved the people in times of wars and famine and subsequently, almost magically, the population exploded. This population explosion in turn led to the social and economic revolutions that marked the early 19th century. A cheaply produced high calorie crop could feed the masses and sustain a cheap labour force.
By the early 19th century the peasant population of Ireland subsided almost entirely on potatoes (up to 200kg per capita per year were consumed!), since their greedy landlords only provided them with a miniscule amount of space on which they could grow their own foods in return for labour on the estate. What happened then is common knownledge - in 1845 disaster soon struck in the form of the infamous potato blight (Phytophthora infestans), which wiped out a large portion of the crop, leaving millions in want of food. Actually, the worst could have been avoided with a little more foresight, relief efforts and largess. But this was not the century for noble humanistic relief efforts to help the poor.
According to the Cambridge 'World History of Food'
"The blight of 1845 savaged 40 (not 100) percent of the crop, but infected tubers were allowed to rot in the fields, where they incubated the spores of the following years' disasters. In 1846, ideal weather conditions for late blight aided the rapid infection of early tubers, so that barely 10 percent of the crop was salvaged. But in the aftermath of the less-than-total disaster of 1845, the 1846 emergency was largely ignored by the British government, which failed to suspend the Corn Laws and continued both to export Irish grain and to forbid emergency grain imports. Taxes continued to be enforced, evictions soared, and relief measures, which included food-for-work and soup kitchens, were too few and too late. Bourke (1993), among others, blamed the English as well as the Irish landlords, a well-off greedy few who benefited from the political and economic policies that impoverished the masses."
Thus, millions of Irish people died of starvation or were forced to migrate to America in search of food and labour. However, many of those who tried to leave were already too weak at the point of boarding the ships to ever stand a chance of arriving alive on the other side of the Atlantic.
It is interesting to note, that the commonly held belief that eating blighted potatoes causes no actual physical harm is in fact wrong. Recent scientific evidence has shown that consumption of blighted potatoes can cause birth defects.
Many factors have contributed to this disaster and we should learn our lesson from it. Highly cultivated potatoes become less resistant. Furthermore, monocultures that do not employ crop rotations run a great risk of depleting the soil and thus endanger the crop further. In the case of potatoes, breeding resistance into them by gene manipulation runs the risk of increasing their toxicity (remember, potatoes produce alkaloids that dispel insect pests, but these same alkaloids are harmful to humans). Excessive breeding has turned the potato into a pretty tasteless, homogenous vegetable which, due to its increased economic value (larger spuds, more yield per acre), is threatening old varieties and thus the genetic stock, a problem that is especially serious in their Andean homeland. Loss of genetic variety harbours again the seed of disaster, as more and more people around the world have come to depend on potatoes for their sustenance.
Diet faddists often regard potatoes with disdain, believing them to be fattening, but this accusation is not wholly justified. It all depends on how you prepare them and what else you eat. It is true that potatoes are a rich source of carbohydrates and as such provide the body with fuel, or calories which it needs to perform its daily chores. However, what makes them fattening is usually the fat that is used in processing them into ever popular potatoes chips (French fries) or crisps. In normal quantities, eaten as part of a balanced diet, they have great nutritional benefits, though people who are on a carbohydrate restricted diet should limit their consumption of potatoes and if they do eat them, make sure that they only eat potatoes with their nutrients preserved.
Potatoes lose a great deal of their nutritional value if they are peeled before boiling, as their nutrition ends up in the cooking water, which is then discarded. Potatoes are a rich source of vitamin C, Vitamin B6, copper, potassium, manganese and tryptophan, as well as fibre. They also contain anti-oxidant constituents, which are very valuable in protecting the body cells against a number of degenerative diseases. Most of the fibre is found in the skin. Thus, it is best to use organic potatoes that can be boiled and eaten with the skin. Industrial potatoes are treated with quite massive amounts of pesticides, as these varieties have become very vulnerable to all sorts of pests. When buying potatoes avoid those that are already washed as the washing process destroys their natural protective coating, making them more vulnerable to bacteria and thus decay.
Potatoes should be stored in a cool, dark place, but not too cold. Don't store them in the fridge, as this turns their starches into sugar and alters their taste. Avoid exposure to sunlight, as this will encourage the potatoes to turn green and sprout, increasing their toxic alkaloid content. All green parts and the eyes should be removed before cooking. Potatoes have a tendency to oxidize quickly once they are cut and exposed to air, which will cause an unsightly discolouration. To avoid this, sprinkle them with lemon juice and cover with cold water until you are ready to use them.
It may come as a surprise, but potatoes are not just a 'tummy filler', they also have medicinal properties that may come in handy one day. Potatoes are the sort of thing that can be found in most people's pantries and thus are a great 'kitchen medicine' for those who are familiar with their uses.
Potatoes are very alkalising and their raw juice can be taken internally to soothe peptic ulcers and excessive acidity. However, dosage should be limited to the juice of just one good sized potato per day.
Externally, boiled potatoes to can be mashed and applied as hot as can be borne, as a poultice to aching rheumatic joints. Or, better still, mash some raw potatoes, heat them up in the oven and apply as a poultice.
Raw mashed potatoes or even just their skins can be used as a soothing and healing plaster for scalds and burns, as well as ulcers, haemorrhoids and badly healing wounds.
Mashed potatoes are a very good and easily digested food in periods of convalescence. Cardiovascular patients should eat their potatoes without salt, to benefit from their diuretic, blood pressure lowering effect.
Bio-engineers are tinkering with potato genes to create pre-cursurs from which bio-plastics could be made.
Potatoes are also used to distill spirits, such as vodka.
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