So what about potatoes, you might ask. Oh boy, here we go. Now don’t get me wrong, I love potatoes. I love them baked, sliced and fried, french fried, chipped, mashed, shredded, boiled, and roasted. But what about potatoes in the middle ages?? Absolutely NOT!
I love doing historical reenacting. It is a tremendous amount of fun to me as well as work. I get a thrill from recreating life in 15th century Europe with the greatest possible accuracy and attention to detail. But part of that accuracy means going without potatoes for the duration of the event. Not baked, not, fried, not roasted, mashed, chipped or boiled. Not in pottage, not with eggs, not even with a chunk of roasted meat.
The Spanish explorer of the 1500’s were the first Europeans to encounter the potato. Returning conquistadors brought the potato back to Europe where its recognition and acceptance spread very slowly. At first it was greeted with distrust and fear that it was unholy, unchristian, dirty, primitive, or unhealthy and perhaps only grown as a novelty. Gradually people began to recognize the properties of the potato and popularity soared when it was heralded as an aphrodisiac. Herbalists claimed it could cure all manner of ills from diarrhea to tuberculosis. The Spanish were the first Europeans to enjoy the potato as a food. In the 1740’s Frederick the Great, King of Prussia and King William of Germany spread potatoes throughout Germany with instructions on how to cultivate them. Through these two monarch’s support, the potato became an important staple crop of eastern Europe.
The French were originally suspicious of potatoes but started to gain acceptance through the work of Antoine August Parmentier, a pharmacist who was imprisoned during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) in a German jail. He gave credit to the potatoes fed to him during his imprisonment for his survival. He managed to convince King Louis the XVI of France to support the potato and threrby began the spread of potatoes in France. He even invited Benjamin Franklin to his home to sample potato dishes in an attempt to quel his fellow Frenchmen’s fear of potatoes. Parmentier was one of the most effective promoters of potatoes in Europe.
In England the potato was introduced by John Hawkins in 1563 but was slow to be accepted. When Drake reintroduced the potato in 1580 its popularity increased.
As you can see, NO potatoes in the 15th century. Pardon me a moment while I wipe my tears. So what WAS available in pre-1500 Europe? Rutabagas, radishes, turnips, carrots, leeks, onions, parsnips, peas, cabbage, spinach, artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, celery and cucumbers. That’ll do for me.