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Europe on a Plate

The potato history of Europe

Publication: 1 March 2023

NO. 45 2022



Potatoes are among the most popular foodstuffs today. They are used in virtually every regional cuisine in Poland. Over time, they became so rooted in our culture, we seem to have forgotten their exotic origins.

Spanish explorers were the first to bring potatoes to the Old Continent in the late 16th century. At first, the new vegetable from South America was merely a curiosity, soon distributed across the Western courts and botanic gardens. It took Europeans over a hundred years to discover potatoes’ nutritional merits.

It wasn’t until the early 18th century that the potato began its expansion across Central Europe. In the Kingdom of Prussia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Habsburg Monarchy, the starchy vegetable found its way to the tables thanks to both the people and the controlled interventions from the rulers.

People Against Potatoes

The introduction of potato cultivation was not easy. Farmers and rural communities approached the new vegetable with considerable scepticism. Just as many other New World novelty plants, the potato was also viewed as potentially dangerous. Such an approach stemmed from cultural and religious patterns as well as the lack of knowledge on its farming and processing for consumption.

In the Christian world, Europe included, nutrition was based on cereals. Therefore, potatoes were seen to be almost a threat to culture and tradition. Some even accused them of infernal origins – perhaps because potatoes belong to the nightshade family, known in the Old Continent to be poisonous.

Prejudice also came from the lack of knowledge on how to farm it: people didn’t know which part of the vegetable was edible, so they tried eating its stalks or raw tubers. However, having discovered boiled or baked potatoes are perfectly fit for consumption, Europeans gradually dropped their reservations against the new vegetable that promised to deter the spectre of famine.


Potatoes in the Duchy of Prussia

Duchy of Prussia – the Kingdom’s eastern province – played a crucial role in the propagation of potatoes across the country. It all started with an outbreak of the bubonic plague in East Prussia from 1708 to 1711 that killed a significant part of the population. In consequence, Frederick William I initiated an action encouraging the families from other regions to resettle in the depopulated Duchy of Prussia. Soon, new residents from Franconia and Rhineland began to move there, as did the Protestants of Salzburg, chased away from their city in 1931 by a local Catholic bishop.

The latter group was said to have had the greatest influence on the popularisation of potatoes in the region. According to the writings of the naturalist and historian, Friedrich Samuel Bock from Königsberg, the Protestants brought the novelty vegetable with them, although settlers from other provinces also might have had an impact on its cultivation in the region.

The Impact of Frederick II the Great

The rule of Frederick II the Great was founded not only in colonisation and economic growth but also on the improvement of the quality of life for the people. The monarch tried to achieve this goal through the popularisation of potatoes, starting with the famine-struck Prussian province of Pommern (today’s West Pomeranian Voivodeship, including Stolp, as well as Lauenburg and Bütow Land). In 1745, Frederick brought the first transports of this vegetable to Kolberg (today’s Kołobrzeg). Unfortunately, the locals didn’t know how to grow and process it, which made them wary and suspicious. Therefore, in 1746, Frederick II issued his first “potato” decree in which he ordered the people of Pommern to farm the new vegetable. On top of that, a farmer from Swabia was brought over to East Prussia to teach the locals how to grow and process potatoes.

Another similar decree, dated March 1756, applied to the province of Schlesien (Silesia). During his rule, Frederick II the Great issued a total of 15 “potato decrees”. However, this number only includes the documents that were discovered by the historians: there might have been more. All of those decrees had a similar structure and often included orders to farm other plants, too, such as cabbage and beetroot. Sometimes, the decrees were issued several times for one province, perhaps to strengthen and reinforce the local policy.


Potato Legends in Poland

In Poland, just like in the Kingdom of Prussia, potatoes proved to be an important weapon in the fight against famine. Even though introducing them to the Polish tables was a challenge, they eventually became the most popular vegetable in the local cuisine. Their omnipresent status and eventual position made them a subject of many legends. Some of them are worth mentioning.

Every child in Poland is told that it was Bona Sforza who supposedly brought potatoes to their country along with mirepoix. However, it’s not true, as chronology makes it clear: Bona Sforza arrived in Poland in 1518 and died in 1557, before potatoes were introduced in Europe.

A less popular legend is linked to the activities of the Polish Brethren, also known as Arians. In his 1906 book “Arianie polscy” [The Polish Arians], Szczęsny Morawski wrote that the brethren cultivated potatoes in the Nowy Sącz region. The vegetable was said to have been brought there from the Netherlands in the early 17th century by theologian Jonas Schlichting. However, Professor Bohdan Baranowski questioned this information. According to Baranowski, the plant Arians cultivated was most likely the Jerusalem artichoke rather than potato. The vegetable was known in Poland long before the introduction of potatoes and was commonly called tubers.

Sobieski and Potatoes

After his victory over the Turks at the Battle of Vienna, John III Sobieski was said to have received a new plant from the Viennese gardeners. Because of its charming blossoms, the king had it sent to his beloved Marie d’Arquien. This way, potatoes found their way to the gardens of Wilanów, where they were considered a decorative plant, not a vegetable.

The duty of looking after the new plant was passed onto the royal gardener Paweł Wieńczarek. Later, his son-in-law, Jan Łuba, continued the cultivation of the potato in the outskirts of Warsaw, but it is hard to assess the influence of the royal gardeners on the potato’s popularity in Poland. It could have been modest and limited only to the Masovian region.

Augustus and the Potato

Only during the reign of Augustus III did the potato begin to gain popularity and status in Poland. In “Opis obyczajów i zwyczajów za panowania Augusta III” [The Description of Manners and Customs under Augustus III], Jędrzej Kitowicz wrote about the introduction of potatoes on Poland: “They made an appearance … first in the royal estates, manned only by the German Saxons who brought this fruit with them from Saxony for their convenience.” Further on, Kitowicz explained how potatoes were introduced for large-scale farming: “Over time, farmers in the royal estates began purchasing potatoes from the Germans and selling them further across the border. Finally, the potato became known across the Gdansk Fens, as well as the Greater Poland and Lithuanian Dutchmen … and by the end of Augustus’s reign, all of Poland, Lithuania, and Ruthenia was familiar with potatoes.” Therefore, according to Kitowicz, the popularisation of the potato must have taken place before the monarch’s death in 1763. An early timeline but not impossible.

The process of familiarising the nation with a new vegetable was not, of course, the same for all of Poland. In some regions, the cultivation of the potato was influenced by other forces than the Saxon economists, such as the settlers from other regions. For example, Kitowicz mentions several hundred Swabian families settling around Poznań, who brought the potato to Greater Poland.

It’s worth mentioning the Royal Prussia (parts of Pomerelia and Danzig, Kulmerland, Ebbing and Warmia) that were also under the reign of Augustus III at the time. Aforementioned Friedrich Samuel Bock presented the genesis of importing the potato to those regions, suggesting that the vegetable appeared there independently of Augustus’s efforts, partly thanks to Jan Władysław Suchodolec, responsible for land amelioration solutions in the region. Thanks to Suchodolec, potato farming could spread from the Royal Prussia to Ebbing Uplands as early as the years 1740–1750. Then, it was said to cover all of the provinces, including the Baltic coast, by 1770.

Potatoes in the Habsburg Monarchy

Potatoes found their way to Austria quite early, in the late 16th century. The plant owed its popularity largely to the French botanist Jules Charles de L’Écluse (Carolus Clusius), appointed director of the imperial gardens in Vienna by Emperor Maximillian II, who received potatoes from the Spanish papal legate. It is believed that the Habsburg monarchy owed the introduction of this vegetable to de L’Écluse.

In the 17th century, the doctrine of cameralism was developed in Austria, aiming to maximise the utilisation of human and natural resources. In the long-term perspective, it was going to bring the Habsburg hegemony over Europe. Its greatest supporters – Johann Joachim Becher, Philip Wilhelm von Hörnigk, and Wolf Helmhard von Hoberg – considered potatoes to be a plant of great economic potential. Despite their prognoses, potatoes were slow to gain popularity and approval in Austria. The earliest mentions of large-scale cultivation date back to 1730 and refer to the Vorarlberg region. Over time, more information appeared about potato cultivation in the western and northern parts of Austria but it is hard to estimate its impact on the country as a whole.

In Siebenbürgen

Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) had a significant impact on the change of the Habsburgs’ agricultural policy. The monarchy was late to realise the merits that came with potato farming. It wasn’t until 12th October 1767 that Maria Theresa Habsburg issued a decree ordering potato cultivation in the mountainous Siebenbürgen.

Most likely, the efficacy of this decree was rather low, so to convince Transylvanians to give the new vegetable a chance, a 1769 decree forbade them to use cereals for distilling vodka. The autonomous government of Siebenbürgen also supported the promotion of the potato, along with the first agricultural societies established in the region. Their main goal was to popularise the new vegetable not only among the peasants but also among nobility and magnates. The latter, however, preferred to focus on producing maize.

While potatoes gained popularity, the entire Habsburg monarchy was subjected to a new 1770 document that regulated its cultivation in various regions. The main purpose was to limit its farming in the fertile lands and promote it where the soil was barren, such as Siebenbürgen, Tirol, Carniola, Gorizia, and Istria. On the other hand, fertile soils of Hungary, Upper and Lower Austria, and Moravia were to limit potato farming in favour of cereals. Such policy was meant to maximise Austria’s economic potential.

Despite the initial reservations of Eastern Europeans, the expansion of potatoes in the region went swiftly and without much hindrance. At first, Eastern Europe lagged slightly behind the West, but the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries saw potato farming blossom all over the continent. During that time, potatoes became an important foodstuff, and their cultivation gradually seeped from home gardens into fields, leading to limiting the farming range of other crop types. Swedes and turnips lost their popularity, while in certain areas potatoes superseded some types of cereals entirely.


Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano

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