The potato


Coming from America, the potato arrived in Europe in the XVIIth century. It became a basic food, first in Ireland, then in Great Britain in the Netherlands and little by little increased in other countries.

For a long time, and maybe it continues today too, the potato seemed to be for poor people. Because people who had to eat it were too poor to eat bread. There were no potatoes on the tables for a feast. For families of modest ressources it was often on the table and it was a very good help during famine and it also helped to increase the population size in the XVIIIth and XIXth century.

In Ireland, in the XVIIIth century, a good healthy man, when the situation was normal ate 5 kg potatoes each day, that means 3459 calories, 1 « pint » of milk, means 393 calories if it was whole milk, 207 calories if the milk was without cream, oats and peas.
In 1845-46 because of a disease of the potato a deadful famine happened. The people had nothing to eat, because potato was the basic food and also, they lacked vitamin C, because potatoe contains a lot of vitamin C, so the population was not in good health and illness came: scorbutus, dysentery, typhus, cholera. Population lacked also the B7 vitamin, also present in potato and the number of mental illness increased too.

In Great Britain in the first part of the XIXth century, people were eating more potatoes than bread and ate potato instead of the wheat when there was no wheat anymore.

In Germany, people ate potato more in the North than in the South. In the North, they ate it in stews, in the South people prefered to eat cereal porridge. Only after the big agricultural crisis at the beginning of the XIXth century it was really accepted as human food.

Between 1850 and 1900 the consummation of potato doubled, then half less in the XXth century. Around 1900 Germany ate double the amount of potatoes as France: 300 kg for one year, but it was for human food, pigs food and potato alcohol.

Potato was introduce to France by Antoine – Augustin Parmentier. He is born in Montdidier in 1737 and died in Paris december 17th 1813. He studied first to be an apothicary first in Montdidier and then, from 1755 in Paris. In 1757 he was an apothicary assistant in the army. During the « 7 years war » he was a prisonner in Germany. In 1771 he became the major apothicary in the Royal Hôtel of Invalides. In this time the Besançon’s (french town) academy opened a concourse whose subject was: « Which kind of vegetables could we eat if a famine occurred and how could they be cooked ? » Parmentier thought about this subject, remembered when he was a prisonner in Prussian and ate potato porridge, and wrote a report for this concourse. « Our soldiers ate a lot of potatoes during the last war, sometimes too much but they were not ill. For two weeks, I’ve eaten only potatoes and I’ve not been tired or ill. » His report was published, he was recompensed by the Academy of Sciences, Litterature and Art but from 1748 the Parliament forbade potato cultivation because some people said it was very dangerous and encouraged some illness like leprosy. The members of the Paris medecine faculty studied potato and said that it was good to consume. But the field they used in Paris, in the Invalides, today in the center of Paris to study vegetables was the property of a religious congregation and the sisters went to the King saying that Parmentier disturbed them. 1774 December 31st because of a royal law Parmentier had no job anymore but kept his salary: 1200 livres (ancien money) because his knowledge. Because of another law, in 1777, he kept also his accomodation, but this was broken in 1792.

Parmentier wanted absolutely that people knew and ate potatoes. So he organised dinners with famous personnalities. Finally in 1785 the King Louis XVI offered him a field in the Sablons plain near Neuilly (now: Métro Sablons near the Acclimation Garden). Parmentier cultivated the potato and in August 1786 offered a posy of potato flowers to the King. The King put one flower at his buttonhole and an other one on the perruque of the Queen, Marie-Antoinette.
But potatoe wasn’t useful in daily food. Parmentier got a great idea. He asked the soldiers to keep his field in Sablons. During the night, the soldiers slept and people came to take the plants, thinking that if soldiers keep those plants, it’s means they are very good and useful.
The recolt was good, so the Agriculture Society gave Parmentier another field in Grenelle, now a place in Paris
: Beaugrenelle like Manhattan, with high buildings. In 1787 the King Louis XVI who ate the potato gave his autorisation to include potato in the useful plants of the experimental garden in Rambouillet.. In 1795 because the menace of the famine the Commune (government) said to plant a lot of potatoes in the Tuileries gardens.

Potato played a essential nutritive role but it was difficult to accept it. In France it was easier in poor regions than in cerealy regions. It was cultivated only in summer in empty fields, because the culture turned over each three years. At the beginning, the peasants who cultivated potatoes didn’t pay any taxes for it so the Lords didn’t enjoy potatoes.

In high Alsace near Germany where there was just few cereals, people used to eat a lot of dry fruits instead of bread. But from the end of the XVIIIth century, people didn’t care anymore about their fruit trees and ate potato instead of dry fruits in winter.
So, potato took the place of bread or became one of ingredients of the bread. Because bread, in this time, was not like today. It was a basic food prepared with cereals, seeds, vegetables and dry fruits. In Alsace, in 1773 peasants prepared their bread with potato, oats and ancient vegetables (vesce). Another way to use potato was the «eau-de-vie» (life water, a very strong alcohol) developed in France
 since the XVIIth century.

Parmentier did a lot, the King helped him, but nothing was written about potato in the first french cook dictionairy published in 1765/67. But locally, especially in Alsace, maybe because Alsace isn’t far from Germany, people used to eat it like this recipe shows: cook potato with milk, fresh butter and bacon, let brown then simmer in a broth, then add eggssalt, onions and aromatic herbs and make an omelette with.

Parmentier had not only interest in potato. He said that vaccine against varioly was an obligation, when he was general health inspector between 1805 and 1813 when Napoleon governed France. With Cadet de Vaux, who was an apothicary in the Invalides, he tryed to improve the quality of the bread for prisons and hospitals, invented a new method of panification, a school for bread, helped Delessert to find sugar from other vegetables than sugar-cane, and helped him to find the first sugar refinery in Passy in 1801 with beetroot, improved the technique of Nicolas Appert to conserve food using cold.

Today, we remember Parmentier because one metro station in Paris is called Parmentier and one recipe: Hachis (Force-meat) Parmentier.

Potat: 1 kg
Rests of cooked meat  about 300 g
Onion 1
Garlic 1 clove
Butter or margarine 50 g
Milk about 2 glasses
Grated cheese or bread-crumbs 50 g
Salt, pepper

Peel the potatoes, boil them about 25 / 30 minutes
Chop the onion, let it cook slowly in the pan, 10 minutes, with some butter or magarine.
If you add a table spoon water to the onion it won’t burn.
Chop the meat and the garlic, add in the pan too for a few minutes, add salt, pepper and let cook for 5 minutes.
Turn the oven on, crush the potatoes, add and in the same time mix with a wood spoon first 20 g butter or magarine then burning-hot milk, salt and pepper.
Butter an oven proof dish, put in the half of the potato purée, the chopped meat, the rest of the potato purée, sprinkle with the grated cheese or the bread-crumbs, add some butter or margarine; let brown in the warm oven (7/8) for about 15 minutes.