• Hans Faber

Know where to find your sweet potato

We retrace our steps back to the sixteenth century. A time the potato was exotic. Nowadays children eat pastas, pizzas, burgers, shawarma, sushi, noodles, fried rice etc. And that is why they find it a treat when you serve them boiled potatoes for supper once in a while. With a bit of salt and lots of gravy, of course. It is special and exotic again. And that is no applesauce. We therefore wondered how serious we should take the grim image of Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters.

There are many, many words for the tattie or the potato. Only in the Netherlands the variations are endless. For example aardappel, erpel, jirpel, patat and pieper. But many more. In Germany it is officially Kartoffel but many more variations exist there too, including Pipper, Tüfte and Tüffel. The last two variants probably derived from truffle. We’ll stick to potato in this blog post. And besides all the different names for the potato, there are more than 5,000 different varieties of potatoes, all with a different name. Do not even bother to list those. Furthermore, you have the confusion of French fries, chips, patat/petat and friet(en), all names for the fried, elongated strips of potato. The border between friet(en) and patat/ petat on this map below.

border friet(en) and patat - Meertens Instituut

The origin of the potato is according to DNA research southern Peru, although Chile and Peru are almost in a state of war still about who can claim being the cradle of this poisonous plant. We do not know why they argue about it, since it is too late the get a patent anyway. Indeed, world claim for potato fame. We hikers do know from our own experience that southern Chile and Peru is excellent hiking material, e.g. National Park Torres del Paine. But this aside and not relevant to mention here actually.

The earliest proof of the potato crossing the Pond was in 1573, when it was recorded being in Spain. Once in Spain, monks were probably responsible for spreading the plant further into Europe, perhaps first via Italy. At the turn of the of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the potato reached Germany and the Netherlands. But by then it still was a curiosity and only mostly grown at cloister gardens and at universities for study. People figured the weird-looking and tasteless potato was more suitable as food for pigs and maybe for the poor. We will come back to Peppa Pig later this blog post.

Things changed because of clashing religions, as it often does in history. Already before the arrival of the potato in Europe, Luther had nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517. Eventually, this schism too led to (civil) wars and prosecution, between Catholics and Protestants. This, of course, also led to refugee flows within Europe to, among others, the Low Countries. People adrift included the Huguenots from France at the end of the seventeenth century.

The Huguenots in general did not bring much wealth with them or other particular valuable skills, contrary to what is sometimes romanticized. Something that might be influenced by today's emotional migration debates. But the Huguenots did not came totally empty-handed either. What they did bring with them was a different cuisine that had the potato as staple. The noodles, nasi goreng or pom of today's immigrants, you could say. In the period between 1680 and 1720, religious refugees also settled in province Friesland in the Netherlands and started to grow potatoes in their small, private kitchen gardens. Small-scale and for themselves. But in the year 1761 it was the area between the terp-villages (terp being an artificial dwelling mound) of Firdgum and of Tzummarum in the northwest of the province, where the first commercial field of potatoes ever was harvested in the Netherlands. Firdgum is depicted on the cover photo of this blog post with its remarkable freestanding, slim church tower. The first load of potatoes was being shipped to Amsterdam via the harbor of the town of Harlingen by skipper Johan Pieters. A skipper from the town of Franeker. Till this very day, the potato is the main crop in this area, although farmers have specialized into seed potatoes now.

The reason behind the fact the potato was, and still is, so successful in this area, has to do with the rich clay soil in combination with the salty sea winds. The latter giving greenfly a very hard time. The clay soil used to be tidal marshland that was reclaimed from the Wadden Sea in the High Middle Ages and therefore is very rich.

The pope's clothes

Before the introduction of the potato, the area around Firdgum was known for its flax production. Flax is the basis for linen cloth. The local story is that even the pope in Rome wore cloths made in Firdgum. If you want to have a clue what's true of this local rumor (and it is more than you think!) read our blog post Haute couture from the salt marshes. Tradional carbohydrate crops of the salt marsh were barley, especially sea barley, and emmer wheat. Possibly spelt and (bread) wheat too, but archaeological research has to further substantiate the growing of these two crops.

'Cause it was a great and nutritious addition to the diet, the potato became known as the poor man’s food. Cheap food and the only food the grey masses could afford. In the year 1843 an economic crisis set in and most people lost their jobs again. This was 'supplemented' with a malaria epidemic, an influenza epidemic, cholera and last but not least with potato blight. Causing crop failures and thus serious famine. Despite people were literally starving, the few healthy potatoes that were harvested, were exported. Shipped from the port of the town of Harlingen. On June 24, 1847 the hungry masses exploded in this small but crowded and jammed city at the Wadden Sea coast. First they plundered a ship loaded with potatoes. After they had secured the potatoes, mobs looted houses of the wealthy, including that of the mayor. In the ’50s that followed things were not much better. Poor people still dying like flies because of cholera and tuberculosis. And potatoes still being scarce and too expensive.

Not long after these troubles, in the year 1885, Vincent van Gogh painted the grim life of the poor. The painting is named: the Potato Eaters. The name is not to be confused with those who in the Netherlands are known as the patatgeneratie ‘French fries generation' today. A generation of the period early ’70s to mid ‘80s and typified for their passiveness. Indeed, real potato-heads.

aardappeleters potato eaters Van Gogh
De Aardappeleters 'The Poato Eaters' - Vincent van Gogh

Kids and potatoes have another connection. Headmaster Kornelis Lieuwes de Vries from the village Suameer in province Friesland, cultivated at his school potatoes. A famous potato variety he developed in 1905 is the Bintje. He named this variety after one of his pupils, an eager girl named Bintje Jansma. Other pupils in his school after whom potato varieties are named are, Cato, Sipe and Trijntje.

Now, after being so many centuries of service, potatoes are slowly disappearing from the staple. Especially from city folk's tables. It is considered old-fashioned, tasteless food and above all not quick to prepare. The bags are heavy to carry from the supermarket, and you have to peal the skin too. Too tiring. Too much of a hassle for a family where both skinny parents work and only have a few minutes to prepare a meal. Too many carbs anyway, especially since bikes have become electric. But everything that is scarce always becomes popular. Therefore, go the extra mile, and treat your children once in a while on this poor man's food again: boiled potatoes with a bit of salt and lots and loads of gravy. When they need a final push to be convinced, show your kids this short movie of Peppa Pig about when Mr Potato Head Comes to Town (and good to see Peppa Pig lives on a Frisian terp too).

Your kids love it and not grim at all (anymore)!

Note. Credits images go to Fotogorter and Vincent van Gogh

Note. When hiking stage 4 of the Frisia Coast Trail you pass through this area and you have the option to visit the Yeb Hettinga Museum in an old school building and the Zodenhuis, a sod-house replica made of clay grass-sods being the practice in the Early Middle Ages.

Note. If you happen to be in the Queen of the Hanseatic League, the city of Lübeck in Germany, you have the change to go out eating in the Kartoffel Keller. A restaurant dedicated to the potato. Now, how cool is that!

Suggestions for further reading

Buist, G., Bintje, vernoemd naar een ijverig schoolmeisje uit Friesland (2019)

Nicolay, J., Schepers, M., Postma, D. & Kaspers, A., Firdgum: pioniers, boeren en terpbewoners (2018)

Oliemans, W.H., Het brood van de armen. De geschiedenis van de aardappel temidden van ketters, kloosterlingen en kerkvorsten (1988)

Pot, G.P.M., Arm Leiden. Levensstandaard, bedeling en bedeelden 1750-1854 (1993)

Scheltema, J., Geschiedenis van de dagelijksche kost in de burger-huishoudingen (1830)

Vuyk, S., De blikken dominee. Een verboden liefdesaffaire die eindigde in moord (2011)

Wiersma, J., Noord-Nederland na de bedijkingen (2018)