History of the Potato and ‘Petata’ of Leonessa

It is one of the first words that children learn and each of us has eaten many kilos. It seems to have been part of our civilization forever, but has had periods of absence: this is the summary of history of the potato in Europe.

The potato arrived in Europe with the Spanish conquerors of Peru, who took it from the Inca, and its first description dates back to 1537. From Spain it passed to the Netherlands and Italy (which was in part a Spanish possession) and here it was called ‘Tartuffolo ‘or’ white truffle ‘.

Its first appearance in England was made in 1588 thanks to Walter Raleigh, one of the most famous adventurers of the Queen Elizabeth I era. Walter was a navigator and corsair who discovered American territories and chose the name of Virginia for the new American state in honour of his beloved ‘virgin’ Queen.

For many years the potato did not enjoy much success, perhaps because its lumpy form reminded people of a leper, also perhaps because it was not quoted in the Bible, or perhaps because many people ate the leaves that are poisonous. The potato was brought to Italy at the end of the sixteenth century by the Carmelite fathers who proposed some recipes, that are still very modern, albeit with little success then.

The subsequent success of the potato is due to two driving factors: the famine of 1770 and the enterprising policies of the Sun King of France.

Since 1700 potatoes and corn, thanks to their agricultural yield, had become the main foods of the European diet. In Northern Europe, the great hunger caused by the seven-year war (1756-1763) and the famine of 1770-72 encouraged people to eat potatoes that, growing under the ground, had been saved from the destruction by the armies.

But the transformation from food for subsistence to a sought-after, tasty and appetizing food product is due to a French agronomist, Augustin Parmentier.

While he was a prisoner in Prussia, Augustin knew about the potato and presented it in France as a “bread already made”, a new food against famine, that does not need a miller or a baker who would add a premium.

The king fell in love and issued an edict to oblige everyone to cultivate this tuber. But the instruction had no effect, and then the king, advised by Parmentier, used another stratagem. The idea was to arouse envy and sense of emulation in people and to make them want to cultivate their own potatoes alone.

The king planted the potatoes in an area at Campo di Marte and kept this land private without royal guards saying that it was cultivated for the king only. This caused small thefts and robbery of tubers.

After only a few years the popularity of the potato was undisputed and its recipes were present in all the high-tech books. The invention of the croquettes came in the nineteenth century thanks to Antoin Careme.

Today the potato is consumed virtually all over the world in many different recipes and is the basis of food supply of much of the western population. The different types of potatoes are classified according to the characteristics of the pulp, yellow pulp or white, the latter being more suitable for mashed potatoes.

The potato – Pètata – of Leonessa

The Leonessa plateau, at an altitude of almost 1000 meters, is traditionally dedicated to the cultivation of potato, which here has a unique taste and special nutritional properties. The soil has less oxygen but more nutrients such as vitamins and minerals and few sugars.

Under these conditions, both red and white skin potatoes are a bit smaller than normal, more nourishing and certainly more flavourful. They are ready to use because they are dry.

Sugar, which is only 16%, makes Leonessa’s potato suitable for diabetics and slimming treatments for which Dr. Ivo Pulcini has created a particular diet. It is also particularly suitable for sportsmen due to its high digestibility.

The qualities of Leonessa’s potato are so special that since October 1990 every October it is celebrated with the ‘Petata Festival – Roasted, tender or rescallata’ with a grand prize for the largest potato.

The name in dialect emphasizes the strong bond with the territory and the way it is traditionally cooked. ‘Rescallata’ potato is a very old recipe in which the potatoes are boiled and then put into a frying pan with onion and bacon until they have absorbed the flavour. Absolutely must try!