Friday, July 27, 2007

Spanish Potatoes.

Today, July 27th

William Eden, a British diplomat in Spain, wrote to his mother on this day in 1788, and mentioned the food:

“I must not forget to mention that we find here two excellent articles for the table – good bread, and as fine potatoes as I ever saw”

Was he referring to the potato, or the sweet potato? The potato was certainly being grown in England at that time but it was hardly popular, particularly on the tables of the well-to-do. One writer of the time (David Davies, in The Case of the Laborers in Husbandry, 1795) said:

“Today the whole laboring people have neither meat nor cheese nor milk nor beer in sufficient quantities, they eat white bread where everybody else eats it. Though the potato is an excellent root, deserving to be brought into general use, yet it seems not likely that the use of it should ever be general in this country.”

One of the problems in unravelling the early history of the potato in Europe is that many of those who wrote about the new exotic plant had not actually seen it and confused it with other roots. Botanists were no exception to this, and even the famous Gerard added to the confusion by mistakenly believing it came from Virginia, and giving it the name Batata virginiana in 1597. The potato already had the botanical name which it still bears today - Solanum tuberosum, which was given to it in 1596. By naming the plant Batata, Gerard also confused the actual plant with the sweet potato, which is Batata edulis.

There is confusion too in early cookbooks, which sometimes refer to the ‘Spanish Potato’ – which we take today to mean the sweet potato. It is not always so clear-cut however, and even the OED is not sure. Here is what it says on the two species:

- A plant, Batatas edulis, family ConvolvulaceƦ, having tuberous roots, for which it is cultivated for food in most tropical and subtropical regions of the world; = BATATA. Its native region is unknown, but it appears to have been seen by the Spaniards first in the West Indies c1500. Now distinguished as sweet or Spanish potato.

- The plant Solanum tuberosum (family Solanaceae), a cultigen of South American origin, now grown commercially worldwide for its starchy underground stem tubers. Originally more fully potato of Virginia, Virginia potato. Also called white potato and (formerly) Carolina potato, Spanish potato, Chilian potato, Irish potato.

It is not always possible to be certain which ‘potatoes’ are being referred to in early cookbooks, and sometimes it does not matter from a culinary point of view, as they can be substituted.

The first recipe almost certainly means the sweet potato:

Potato-Pye.
Your crust being ready, lay in Butter, then your Potato boil’d tender, then some whole Spice, and Marrow, Dates, and the yolks of hard Eggs, blanch’d Almonds, and Pistacho Nuts, candied peels of Citron, Orange, and Limon, put in more Butter, close it and bake it; then cut it open, and put in Wine, Sugar, the Yolks of Eggs and Butter.
[Salmon, William. The family dictionary: or, houshold companion. London 1710]

As does this one:

Potato, or lemon cheesecakes.
Take six ounces of potatoes, four ounces of lemon-peel, four ounces of sugar, four ounces of butter; boil the lemn-peel till tender, pare and scrape the potatoes, and boil them tender and bruise them: beat the lemon-peel with the sugar, then beat all together very well, and let it lie till cold: put crust in your pattipans, and fill them a little more than half full: bake them in a quick oven half an hour, sift some double refin’d sugar on them as they go into the oven; this quantity will make a dozen small pattipans.
[Carter, Charles. The London and country cook: …London, 1749]

But what about this one?

To make Potato Fritters.
Boil and beat half a dozen of potatoes; mix them with four beat eggs, about a gill of thick cream, some sugar and nutmeg, a little salt, a bit of fresh butter oiled, and a dram; beat them all well together, and drop them in the boiling dripings; fry them a light brown. Dish them hot, and strew sugar over them.
[Cookery and pastry, as taught and practised by Mrs MacIver; Susanna MacIver; 1789]

If you still want more historic potato recipes, you can go over to the Potato Recipe Archive.

P.S Now that my pie book is off to the publishers (it is in the mail today!!) I just might amuse myself part of this weekend by starting to put together a Potato Timeline. What do you think?

Monday’s Story …

Eating Camel.

Quotation for the Day …

Pray for peace and grace and spiritual food. For wisdom and guidance, for all these are good. But don’t forget the potatoes. John Tyler Petee.

3 comments:

Liz & Louka said...

A potato timeline would be very interesting! I've got some stories in my books about how people in various countries were encouraged to take up eating potatoes, but unfortunately all my books are in storage right now :-(

Gillian said...

Yes! Do it! I can help, if you want, since I have a copy of the rather large history of the potato in my library. It's not new, but it's chockers with primary source mentions. (If you have your own copy then I probably can't be mnuch help, I suspect. It's after my period.)

Lapinbizarre said...

Concerning the term Spanish Potato, Anna Wells Rutledge, a deceased but valued friend (I just discovered that last Sunday would have been her 100th birthday) and member of the distinguished Charleston family, used the term Spanish potato for the sweet potato - normally termed the yam in these parts. The "regular" potato she called the Irish potato. FYI, years back, when I dressed a ham by coating its exposed fat section with toasted breadcrumbs mixed with powdered mace - a standard practice when I grew up in NW England - she said that this had been a common way of dressing ham in Charleston when she was a child, but that she had not seen it there for many years.