The humble potato - 500-year-old staple diet

Food & Drink

The humble potato - 500-year-old staple diet

The British diet would seem very strange without the potato. But, until explorers from Europe reached the Americas, we were a nation without this vegetable. That all changed in the 1580s.

The potato is native to South America, and was cultivated there by the Incas, who found it nutritious, with a long shelf-life for the harvested crop. The Spanish conquerors of the continent took the vegetable back to Europe with them, and it became known in many countries, though initially as a medicine rather than a food.

Seafarer explorer Sir Walter Raleigh's servant Sir Thomas Harriot is credited both with bringing the potato to England and with planting them in Ireland on Raleigh's estate there in the 1580s. Though some sources say that Francis Drake brought the new vegetable to our shores. It however took some time for the potato to be accepted as a culinary staple.

The crop coped well with the Northern European climate and is full of vitamins and energy - as scientists realised in the 1770s.

In Britain, the potato is seen as having promoted economic development by underpinning the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, serving as a cheap source of calories and nutrients that urban workers could grow for themselves on small backyard plots or allotments.

In Ireland, workers renting tiny plots from landowners were able to feed their families, as a single acre of potatoes and the milk of a single cow were enough to provide a monotonous but nutritionally adequate diet. This was, however, the source of an impending disaster, as when a disease, potato blight, arrived in Ireland in 1845, around a million of the population died of famine.

The British potato growing industry today is still fairly substantial, with a number of speciality varieties attracting premium prices including those grown for early harvesting in places like the Channel Islands and those produced for growers as seed.

Since 1960, the harvested area of potato production in Britain has shrunk by half, and the number of registered potato growers from 70 000 to just 3 000. But the UK still ranks No. 11 among world potato producing countries, recording harvests of around 5-6 million tonnes, and average yields exceeding 40 tonnes per hectare.

Further reading

Links to external websites are not maintained by Bite Sized Britain. They are provided to give users access to additional information. Bite Sized Britain is not responsible for the content of these external websites.