Mash hits – Tim Fanning on potato impresario Henry Doyle

It was an Irishman who took on the job of promoting the potato in Spain

Once upon a time no Irish dinner would have been complete without a rake of spuds. Times have changed, however, and the humble potato, although continuing to be as synonymous with Ireland as a certain durable stout, has ceded ground to all manner of other staples.

In Spain, however, the tasty tortilla de patatas, or Spanish omelette, continues to be a go-to of Spanish cuisine and no self-respecting household chef is without their own particular recipe. The potato looms large in many other Spanish dishes, not least the omnipresent patatas bravas well known to generations of Irish holidaymakers and, latterly, to customers of the myriad tapas restaurants that have opened around the country.

Given that it was probably the Spanish who first introduced the potato to the Old World, it seems hardly surprising that the potato should play such an integral role in Spanish cooking. Notwithstanding the claims of Sir Walter Raleigh, the one-time Mayor of Youghal, Elizabethan pirate and stupid git – in the words of John Lennon – it was Spanish conquistadors in Peru who were the first to bring back the potato. (Neither was Raleigh the first to bring back tobacco, despite Lennon’s harsh accusations in ‘I’m So Tired’.)

As part of the eponymously named Columbian Exchange, the most significant period in a long process of biological globalisation, the Old World gave the New World smallpox, influenza and African slavery; the New World returned the favour by giving us tobacco and syphilis, although the latter was possibly another of our gifts to the Americas.

The potato, then, would seem among the more benign exports to travel across the Atlantic in the sixteenth century, albeit historians claim it helped establish the West’s hegemony in the centuries that followed by providing a cheap, nutritious source of food for its peasantry.

While the Irish took to the vegetable at an early stage – a large swathe of the Irish population was totally dependent on the potato by the end of the 18th century – the Spanish remained underwhelmed. In many European nations, the potato was treated with suspicion and regarded as a food solely fit for animals. Furthermore, in the rigidly hierarchical Spanish Empire, the potato was tainted by its origins.

Although Spaniards and criollos, those of Spanish ancestry born in South America, were proud to have introduced the crop to Europe, they associated the potato with the indigenous peoples of the Andes.

In the racially hierarchical Spanish Empire, this meant that potatoes were not regarded as a food fit for Spaniards.

It was an Irishman who took on the job of promoting the potato in Spain. Dublin-born emigrant Henry Doyle had tried his hand at religious proselytism and industrial espionage before hitting on his métier, writing best-selling tracts about the virtues of the potato. And unsurprisingly, he used the example of Ireland to make his case.

Doyle first arrived in Spain in the mid-18th century at the invitation of the government. The reigning Bourbons were attempting to modernise the Spanish Empire and hoped to benefit from Doyle’s expertise in textiles.

He was initially given the task of establishing a factory and, then, was sent to England to steal the latest advancements in textile manufacturing.

Meanwhile, he wrote a number of tracts on religious themes that found little favour with the public.

When the factory failed, however, he had the opportunity to indulge his great love, agriculture. In a number of successful published works, Doyle explained to the Spanish readership how the potato had transformed Ireland by giving to the poorest in society a healthy and nourishing diet. A sort of Neven Maguire cum Bord Bía salesman ante litteram, Doyle extolled the tuber’s versatility in such culinary bestsellers as 1797′s Treatise on the Cultivation, Use and Utility of the Potato, and Instruction on its Better Propagation.

Doyle made much of the fact that Irish peasants were robust and healthy because of their reliance on the potato crop. However, in one hubristic passage, he boasted that it was because the Irish peasantry relied upon potatoes that Ireland was in a position to export millions of pounds of wheat to the benefit of both landowners and the treasury. Fifty years later, of course, the Irish reliance on the potato crop was to have devastating consequences.

Meanwhile, in France, pharmacist and shrewd political survivor Antoine-Agustin Parmentier had introduced the potato to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. After the royal couple met the guillotine, Parmentier curried favour with the revolutionaries, eventually becoming chief pharmacist to the Napoleonic army.

Perhaps inevitably, it was the Frenchman rather than the Irishman who took the credit in continental Europe for popularising one of the world’s great culinary delights. And so today we enjoy Parmentier potatoes and not praties à la Doyle.

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