The potato contains little flesh-forming matter; it is valuable or account of its starch and mineral substances.
The ripe potato is covered with a thin skin of cork through which water can scarcely pass. It is this cork skin which enables the potato to be kept the winter through.
It is nearly three hundred years since the potato was introduced into this country. This valuable root is now amongst the necessaries of life, being seldom absent from the table of either the rich or poor. Let us trace back its history and see how its progress and uses have become more and more developed as it has added to our daily domestic comforts.
1lb. of fresh Potatoes contains -
Dextrin or gum .
Woody fibre . ,
Mineral ashes. ,
Sir Walter Raleigh has the undoubted credit of bringing the potato into notice, and his name seems as closely associated, in our minds, with this plant as it does with the tobacco, which by his instrumentality was brought to our knowledge. We are, however, more individually indebted to Thomas Herriot, the well-known mathematician, who was one of the "adventurers" sent out under the sanction of Queen Elizabeth, who granted a patent for " discovering and planting new lands, not possessed by Christians," which passed the great seal in 1584. He returned on the 27th July, two years after, and describes a plant called by the natives "Openawk," growing in that part of North America which Raleigh had named Virginia. " The roots of this plant," says Herriot, " are round; some as large as a walnut, others much larger; they grow in damp soils, many hanging together as if fixed upon ropes. They are good food boiled or roasted".
The potato was grown in Ireland before it came to England; first, on the estate of Sir Walter Raleigh, near Youghal, county Cork, where it grew and bore flowers. The gardener gathered the "apples," or "berries," and, in showing them to his master, said, " Is this the fine fruit from America you so highly praised?" Sir Walter pretended to be ignorant of the matter, and desired him to dig up the weed and throw it away. The man, in following his directions, finding a large number of tubers, saved them.
Sir Robert Southwell, President of the Royal Society, informed the Fellows, in 1693, that his grandfather had purchased potatoes from Sir Walter Raleigh, and was the first cultivator of them in Ireland. At the end of the seventeenth century they were as much used in that country as bread. Dean Swift, in alluding to the families and farmers of Ireland, says, "They live upon buttermilk and potatoes".
"Leek to the Welsh, to Dutchmen butter's dear, Of Irish swains potato is the cheer." *
In Scotland the potato was not largely grown till 1728. A labourer, named Prentice, living in Stirlingshire, planted a little plot of ground from which he partly obtained his livelihood with them. They throve so well, and were so productive, that he retired upon a small fortune which he had been enabled to make, after having witnessed the success of their growth for sixty years. The neighbouring cottagers and farmers seeing the great value of the root, the potato became generally cultivated.
The potato was first planted in England, in Lancashire, owing to a shipwreck, when we are informed that it was accidentally thrown on our shore at North Moels, a soil well adapted for producing this vegetable in great perfection, and where the mode of propagation still maintains pre-eminence, and from whence this important plant has gradually spread through every portion of Great Britain. But it was not for some time generally grown, and was only to be met with in the gardens of noblemen as a "curious exotic;" and in the reign of James I. was considered such a delicacy as only to be provided in small quantities at the cost of two shillings a pound for the Queen's household. Through the succeeding reign and the Commonwealth the potato remained extremely scarce, and its culture was not universally extended till more than a hundred years after the discovery of Virginia.†
Ray (1662) scarcely mentions it, and Evelyn does not name the potato in his " Sylvia," although specially asked to do so by the Royal Society; but thirty years after, in his "Kalendarium Plantarum" (1664), says, "Plant your potato in your worst ground; take them up in November for winter spending; there will be enough remaining for stock though ever so exactly gathered".
The potato found its way on to the Continent at an earlier period than that already mentioned. Peter Cicca, in his Chronicle, printed in 1553, tells us that the inhabitants of Quito and its vicinity have, besides maize, a tuberous root, which they eat and call "Papas." This, Clusius conjectures to be the plant he received from Flanders in 1598, during his residence at Vienna, it having been sent to him by the governor of Mons, in Hainault, who procured it the year before from the attendants of the Pope's legate, under the name of Taratoufli, and learned from them that it was then in use in Italy, but no one knew if its origin were Spanish or American. As the Spaniards were at that time sole possessors of South America, there can be but little doubt the plant came from the mountainous parts of Quito into Spain, and from thence to Italy. The Italians becoming well acquainted with the potato, gave it the same title as the Truffle, being also, in habit, an underground root.
* John Gay. † Looking through the average prices of vegetables at Covent Garden Market, which was drawn up some fifteen years ago, we find that when the new or forced potato first came in they were sold in March, April, and May at the prices respectively of ten, six, and five shillings a pound. During these three months they are considered amongst our greatest vegetable delicacies. The importation of new potatoes from Holland now permits the greengrocers at Covent Garden to sell them at If. a basket - i.e., about one pound - as early as February.