Potatoes, along with bread, formed the staple diet of the poor from the late 18th to the 20th Century. The first allotments in the UK sprung up in the 1790’s as a response to the plight of the farm laborers. Unemployment among them was high with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the Enclosure Acts had deprived them of much of the common land where they could grow a few crops and keep livestock.
Information About Potatoes
At around the same time, Louis XIV, facing an uprising by the French peasants over the price of bread, gave the royal seal of approval to the potato. The military pharmacist, Antoine Parmentier, having prospered on a diet of potatoes when a prisoner of the Hanovarians during the Seven Years’ War, introduced them to France with zeal. He opened potato soup kitchens for the poor. He convinced the King who held the popular view that potatoes were food for pigs’ (and might even cause leprosy!) with a bowl of delicious potatoe soup — known ever since as Potage Parmentier.
The potato grows wild in the Andes mountains. It is said that Sir Walter Raleigh presented them to Queen Elizabeth I. The story goes that royal cook discarded the tubers and boiled the leaves and that, unsurprisingly, the result was not warmly received. Be all this as it may, the first published account with an illustration in England was in Gerard’s Herhall of 1597.
As the potato is related to deadly nightshade, it was regarded with suspicion at first. Another hitch was that the early varieties imported from South America were not suited to the British climate. However by the end of the 18th century potatoes had been bred and developed to become the staple diet of working men and their families. Potato breeding reached its greatest height in the 1860s when many new varieties were exhibited at the London International Potato Shows.
During the War potatoes once again were the mainstay. The Ministry of Agriculture’s approved booklet entitled The Garden A.B.C. — How to Grow Food Most Economically in Small Garden Plots and Allotments, puts the case :
”Potatoes will, of course, be the principal crop unless the Garden is quite small. Even in the latter case, in times of National emergency, one should think first of Potatoes and then of Parsnips and such like, for these can be stored.”
Potatoes remain one of the most popular allotment crops perhaps due to longstanding tradition or because they are so gratifying to grow. Another advantage is that they are a good way to clear poor weedy ground. Their roots help break the soil down along with all the digging and earthing up that takes place, while their leaves block out light to weeds.
Potatoes come as first earlies, second earlies and main crop. The first and second earlies, eaten as new potatoes, are faster to mature and less prone to the disease and the slug damage that reaches its peak in late summer and autumn. The main crop produces bigger potatoes which store welI. Salad potatoes are small and waxy. They are ideal for eating cold as they hold their shape well when sliced.
Potatoes are judged on yield, tuber shape, skin and flesh colour, discoloration after cooking (harmless but unattractive), disease and pest resistance. The amount of dry matter (the proportion of starch to water content) affects how the potato cooks. Those with low starch (or dry matter) are best for boiling as they don’t disintegrate easily Those with high dry matter are good for a crisp finish when fried or roasted as they don’t absorb as much fat. High dry matter also means more flavour.
Whether you grow them on an allotment, in a greenhouse (remember to make sure your heating system is in place!) potatoes can be boiled, mashed, baked, steamed, turned into chips or crisps, roasted or sautéed and are the base of many soups. The French make luxurious dishes of duchesse or croquette potatoes or pommes dauphine and boulangère. The Italians transform them into gnocchi. Potatoes are the base of the Spanish tortilla or omelette. They are a good source of vitamin C, B6 and A, potassium and magnesium and contain complex carbohydrates for slow-release energy.