28 July 1586: Britain is introduced to the potato

If there was ever a vegetable that has helped shape our national destiny, it’s the humble spud. A mainstay of our national dish, we serve it in a hundred different ways, and always insist on it being there for Sunday lunch.

In England, it partners up with cabbage to make ‘bubble and squeak’, or colcannon if you’re in Ireland. And in Scotland, ‘tatties’ go hand-in-hand with neeps on Burns Night. In fact, the potato is so much a part of our culture, it’s easy to forget it isn’t even British.

On this day in 1586, Sir Thomas Harriot stepped off the boat in Plymouth. He had just returned from Sir Walter Raleigh’s English colony on Roanoke Island in modern-day North Carolina, where he had made detailed studies of the wildlife – and potatoes.

In the months that followed, Harriot recorded his adventures in A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. In it, he described a curious tuber:

“Openavk are kind of roots of round forme, some of the bignes of walnuts, some far greater, which are found in moist & marish grounds growing many together one by another in ropes, or as thogh they were a string.  Being boiled or sodden they are very good meate.”

Britain isn’t short of “moist & marish grounds” and the potato soon took root, so to speak. Since then, potatoes have become part and parcel of our national cuisine – and our history too.

The failure of the potato crop in Ireland in the 1840s sparked one of the first great waves of emigration to the United States. And the great Marxist thinker, Friedrich Engels, even saw the “farinaceous tubers”, as he called them, as having fuelled Britain’s industrial revolution: “[Iron] is the last and most important of all raw products that play a revolutionary role in history; the last – if we except the potato.”

So, next time you’re eating mashed ‘openavk’, remember that if it wasn’t for Sir Thomas Harriot, Britain today might look – and taste – very different.

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