Potatoes are a vital staple food across the world and a key ingredient in more than 200 dishes, including in the Lithuanian cuisine. However, it took a long time for them to reach current prominence in the Lithuanian diet.
It was in the mid-19th century that potatoes spread in Lithuania on a massive scale. Very little is known, however, about how and when potatoes first entered the country. Therefore, historical literature on the matter sometimes make rather mythological claims.
A botanical rarity, an exotic flower, a herb
Potatoes first travelled to Europe with Spaniards in the third quarter of the 16th century from the western part of Latin America where local people had cultivated potatoes since as early as 10,000 BC.
In many European countries, including Spain and Italy, Holland and Germany, however, potatoes initially enjoyed a very limited success. England was virtually the only exception where potatoes were brought in by pirates led by Francis Drake (ca. 1540–1596) after they plundered Spanish vessels.
Of the two varieties of potatoes known in Latin America, Solanum andigenum and Solanum tuberosum, Europe adopted the latter.
In the beginning, potatoes were considered exotic plants and only the elites could afford to cultivate them. Emperors, kings, popes and cardinals would grow potatoes in their gardens like a botanic rarity and a remedy, while potato blooms were used for decoration.
Some cooked potatoes would end up on their dinner tables as well. City dwellers eventually also started cultivating potatoes. It took several centuries for potatoes to spread from southern Europe to the remotest corners of the continent.
The botanic garden in the Polish city of Wroclaw grew potatoes in 1569 while in 1587 potatoes were on sale at the city’s apothecaries as a medicine.
Potatoes were rare and expensive, therefore it took a while for them to enter the homes of the nobility after becoming a common food in the palaces of the rulers. In the long run, people discovered that potatoes were more resilient against bad weather than cereals and could be a salvation in times of famine.
Therefore, potatoes claimed a rank of valuable plants in France, Prussia and other countries in the 17th and 18th centuries. Potatoes had become a staple in Western Europe by the late 18th century, especially among the poor and soldiers. It is no coincidence that the 1777–1779 Bavarian Succession war between Prussia and Austria was called “potato war”, because both armies were more involved in destroying potato fields than in actual fighting.
Kristijonas Donelaitis mentions potatoes in his epic poem The Seasons, written between 1765 and 1775 and published in so-called Lithuania Minor which was then part of Prussia: “People would cook different potato dishes / And honey fungus boiling in sauce.”
In many countries, potatoes spread after the principle of social pyramid, that is, top to bottom.
A number of historical sources highlight the important role that King Jan III Sobieski (1629–1696), the ruler of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, played in making potatoes a popular staple. He sent some potatoes to his wife Marysenka from the gardens of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna in 1683 and ordered to plant them in his royal estates.
Soon potatoes became common both in Warsaw and the entire Commonwealth. Initially many people would look suspiciously at potato dishes served during royal celebrations, but gradually they became trendy in many homes of the nobility.
However, this might be a myth, because there are no reliable sources mentioning any widespread consumption of potatoes in this area of Europe prior to the late 18th century.
Despite that, we know that potatoes had entered Lithuania and Poland much earlier than that. The king and the nobility would grow potatoes in their private gardens in the mid-17th century.
The Lithuanian magnate Kiszka family had ‘bulbos americanos’, or simply potatoes, in their garden in Vilnius in 1640, alongside other exotic plants, such as melons, asparagus and figs.
Władysław IV Vasa had a certain plant named pyra regalia in his royal garden in Warsaw in 1642, which must also have been potatoes. Therefore one should be critical about statements saying that “potatoes were brought to Lithuania from Europe via Rietavas in around 1700.” Polish author S. Herka writes about potato dishes in his book published in 1660.
The culinary book by Stanislaw Czerniecki, Compendium ferculorum, or The Collection of Dishes (1682), lists potatoes (tertufole) among unusual oyster, frog and snail dishes in the chapter dedicated to spices. The book also offers two recipes of potato dishes:
a) “Potatoes. Wrap potatoes into a rough linen and cook them in ashes. You can also boil them (ash-cooked are better), then clean them thoroughly and peel, then cut in pieces. If you want to serve them immediately, add good butter and salt, then fry them and serve. If you want to store them for a longer time, add oil, fry, allow them to cool down and then put them up into a jar for long storage. You can also squeeze a fresh lemon into a plate [with potatoes] if you wish.”
b) “Fish with potatoes. If you wish, first boil or fry potatoes well or clean them raw and cut in pieces. Remove pike scale and cut into the meat in several points, then put it into a stew-pot, add potatoes, wine, olive oil or butter, pepper and white salt. Stew it up and serve.”
The big magnates began indulging in potato dishes in the early 18th century and, by the middle of the century, most nobles grew potatoes in their estates. A historical document mentions two carts of potatoes brought to the Kurtuvėnai estate run by the Nagurski family in 1762.
Jędrzej Kitowicz, the 18th-century Polish priest who wrote on various aspects of life, noted that potatoes spread throughout Poland during the reign of Augustus III of Saxony (1736–1763). Newcomers from Saxony and Holland were behind the growing popularity of potatoes in the first place, according to Kitowicz.
The long road to a peasant’s table
Peasants initially met potatoes with suspicion. There were talks that eating potatoes caused fever.
The mainly catholic country considered potatoes almost a protestant ‘sabotage’ and peasants usually refused to cultivate them. Underdeveloped artificial selection methods in plant breeding and low-level agriculture also hindered the spread of potatoes.
Only two kinds of potatoes, white and red, were known at the time. They were vulnerable to low temperatures and diseases, ordinary peasants knew very little about their cultivation and storage. Very few fertilisers were used at the time, therefore harvests were poor.
The mass cultivation of potatoes emerged together with the overall rise in agriculture. All attempts to force peasants to grow potatoes, including those undertaken from 1765 to 1780 by Antony Tyzenhaus, the vice treasurer of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, proved unsuccessful.
More noticeable changes came only in the late 18th century when more and more people started planting potatoes in large plots of lands rather than in their home gardens.
Peasants finally discovered that potatoes had a much lower impact on soil impoverishment compared to hemp at the turn of the 19th century. People could sow various cereals into the same soil the next year after potatoes and harvests were usually good.
Growing potatoes, however, required more labour than growing grain. On the other hand, cultivating potatoes called for changes in the traditional three-plot crop rotation system. Summer grain crop is reaped much earlier than the potato harvest, therefore potato fields hamper cattle grazing.
It is no coincidence that potato cultivation first spread in the the more economically advanced western and northern territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was only later that potatoes reached the eastern lands of the Commonwealth in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Even in the late 18th century potatoes were a rare crop in Lithuania, taking up no more than 0.4 percent of arable land. The Šilėnai estate run by the Nagurski family planted about 300 litres of potatoes in 1799. There are no documents to indicate whether the potatoes were grown for cooking or to produce spirit or starch.
Potatoes were still very rare, so they were not mentioned in pricelists of various agricultural products that the press in Vilnius and other towns would usually publish in the late 18th century.
Even in the middle of the 19th century, only selected landlords would plant larger fields of potatoes. In 1801, the owner of the estate in Gruzdžiai ordered to plant 245,000 litres of rye, 162,220 litres of oats, 125,900 litres of barley, and just 22,300 litres of potatoes. Peasants in Lithuania mostly consumed oats, barley, buckwheat and peas. Despite the introduction of potatoes in the 1640s, they did not become an important vegetable until the late 18th century.
The story is part of the Orbis Lituaniae project by Vilnius University