The potato first made its appearance in Europe about 1570, having been brought from South America by the Spaniards. Traditional wisdom has it that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the crop to Ireland about 1585.
The Inca Indians in Peru were the first to grow potatoes between 8,000 BC to 5,000 B.C. In 1536 Spanish Conquistadors conquered Peru, discovered the flavours of the potato, and carried them to Europe. Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589 on the 40,000 acres of land near Cork.
Today the potato is the fifth most important crop worldwide, after wheat, corn, rice and sugarcane. But in the 18th century the tuber was a startling novelty, frightening to some, bewildering to others.
Of the many edible crops that emerged at the dawn of modern human civilization and managed to spread across the entire world, few managed to distinguish themselves by their ruggedness, storage quality and nutritional value.These are indigenous flowering plants of South America and the Andes mountains (now south Peru and northwestern Bolivia) managed to prove its usefulness to our ancestors, who cultivated and nurtured them, and have survived over the past ten thousand years of our history. They were introduced to Europe and North America centuries later. Today, extensive research and centuries of selective breeding, we now have access to over thousand different types of potatoes grown worldwide.
The story of the potato started around 350 million years ago, when they started to evolve from the poisonous ancestor of the plant nightshade, this family of plants eventually evolved not only into potatoes, but also into tobacco, chili peppers, bell peppers and tomatoes. Potato slowly evolved into its current form in the South American Andean highlands between Peru and Bolivia. Human settlers reached that part of our world around 15 thousand years ago, and managed to domesticate wild potato around 8 millennia BC. From that point on, the potato slowly started its journey across the continent, but it received great attention in the 1500s when first Spanish conquistadors began their journey beyond the South American coasts, especially after the 1530s when they searched for gold in Peru. Among their various discoveries, potatoes received significant attention. Between 1570 and 1593 (Canary Islands received it in 1562) they introduced the crop to Europe.
European adoption of potatoes was slow but steady. In the beginning, Spanish government used potatoes as a reliable and easily transported food for their military and navy who while using them did not succumb to the scurvy. Potato arrived in Britain in 1585, Belgium and Germany in 1587, Austria in 1588, Ireland in 1589 and France in 1600. Sadly, the local population of those countries looked at potatoes as absolutely unneeded, weird, poisonous. Only roots of the plant were edible, which was totally unheard of in Europe, and in some cases as downright evil. For many years, potato was accused of causing leprosy, syphilis, early death, sterility, rampant sexuality, scrofula, narcosis and for destroying the soil where it grew. This sentiment receded from Europe only after large scale efforts of France to find food that would sustain not only their military, but also a population that was starved from continuous warfare. Long examination of the potato by the famous French botanist and chemist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier finally paid off when he persuaded King of France Louis XVI (1754–1793) to encourage mass cultivation of this plant by tricking the population. King gave Parmentier funds and land to grow 100 acres of potato, which were carefully guarded by military guards. Such large military and government attention on guarding these potatoes instantly sparked the attention of the people, who after that started adopting potato more and more until it became one of the most popular food sources in Europe. The wife of the French king Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) also contributed by pining potato flowers in her curls, a move that was quickly emulated by noble ladies all across Europe.
In the early 1800s, potato became a commonplace crop that was used in the entire Europe, but such popularity became severely tested between 1845 and 1849 when disease destroyed the entire potato production of Ireland. During this “Great Starvation” around one million people died from starvation, and forced a large number of people to emigrate out of Ireland ,500 thousand left for North America and Australia.
The United States of America was the last major country which adopted potatoes in their cuisine. For many years they regarded this crop for horses and other animals. Only after the 1872 efforts of famous horticulturist Luther Burbank (1849-1926), American potato industry managed to gain some traction. This was enabled by Burbank’s discovery of a disease resistant potato hybrid, and another hybrid that was used in Ireland to help combat the blight epidemic.
In the 20th century, potato became accepted across the entire world as one of the most beloved and produced food sources, effectively becoming the most essential crop of Europe. Its high caloric value and wide variety of types enabled it to appear in every cuisine in the world. In 2010 world production of potatoes reached an incredible 324 million tons , 74.8 million tons in China, 36.6 in India, 21.1 in Ukraine, 18.3 in the United States and 10.2 in Germany.