“Let the sky rain potatoes… I will shelter me here.” Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor is referring here to a food that had but recently arrived to England, but was already on its way to popularity.
A team of Folger researchers recently uncovered a very early European potato recipe in our archives. The Folger is proud home to the largest collection of early modern western European recipe books in the United States. And in one of these rare and special books, a recipe collection kept by the Grenville family from c. 1640-1750, is a recipe entitled “to make a potato puding.”
Click here to get the recipe:
Keep reading to learn about how potatoes came to England, and how we adapted this recipe from its early modern form.
When the potato came to Europe
Potatoes are a “new world” food. Culinary historians now think that they originated in Peru, and they were eaten by inhabitants of South and Central America long before western Europeans arrived in these areas in the fifteenth century.
Sweet potatoes were brought back to Spain by Christopher Columbus around 1493, and they quickly became part of European sailors’ diets, as well as those of enslaved people of African and American origin. Potatoes were useful: they have a high yield, thrive in any kind of soil, are drought-resistant, and grow in many different climatic zones.
By 1500, the sweet potato had become an established crop in western Europe. “Common,” or white potatoes, took a bit longer to catch on; they arrived in Europe as a cultivable vegetable between 1550-1570.
Britain was one of the last European countries to take to the potato; the first mention of potatoes (sweet or otherwise) in a printed British book was in 1596, when famed herbalist and botanist John Gerard included it in his Catalogue. This was apparently so well-received that a year later, Gerard devoted an entire chapter of his famous 1597 Herbal to this new and unfamiliar plant.
Over the course of the seventeenth century, more and more British subjects – on both sides of the Atlantic – began to grow, harvest, cook, and eat potatoes. In the early modern period, food trends and fads spread in very different ways than they do today. Cooking blogs, shows, and magazines didn’t exist. Instead early modern people learned about potatoes through experimentation, books, and word of mouth. They exchanged recipes with friends. They shared potato cuttings with their neighbors. They read about potatoes and tried their hands at preparing them. And some were forced to learn about and eat potatoes out of necessity, because they had nothing else.
Adapting the Grenville family recipe
The Grenville family recipe for “potato puding” called for some ingredients that would have been familiar to any early modern British person, like butter and eggs.
But it also included ingredients that might have seemed luxurious and even exotic: sweet wine imported from Spain, cinnamon (which was sourced from India and Sri Lanka in the early modern period), and three pounds of potatoes.
This recipe reveals one family’s attempt to bring a new and unfamiliar food to their table, but it also teaches us about wealth and social status in seventeenth-century Britain. The Grenville’s potato pudding was a fancy dish, saved for special occasions, and something that most early modern families would not have been able to afford.
We invited Dr. Amanda Moniz, a former professional chef and a historian, to help us re-create the Grenville’s potato pudding in our test-kitchen. We faced three major challenges in making this dish in a form that early modern people would have recognized.
- First, the recipe calls for sack, a type of sweet fortified wine originally produced in Spain and the Canary Islands. Sack fell out of use in the nineteenth century, and isn’t available in most American markets. The closest approximation to early modern sack is modern sherry, and especially a dark sherry like Oloroso, which is what we used in our adaptation.
- The second challenge is that the pudding calls for a lot of eggs: eight of them, both whites and yolks. Early modern eggs were smaller, less uniform, and had different moisture levels than our modern American ones. In order to reach the right consistency, we cut the number of eggs in our potato pudding down to five, and we adjusted our cooking time from 30 minutes to 45 minutes so that the pudding would set properly.
- And last, the recipe doesn’t specify what types of potatoes the Grenvilles used in their pudding. But since sweet potatoes were the first kind of potato to be widely adopted in early modern Europe – and since we thought that those flavors would be more familiar to most modern Americans today – that’s what we chose.
When it was finished, the potato pudding was delicious, earning high marks from all of the members of our tasting team. Creamy and rich, delicately scented with sweet wine and cinnamon, this early modern sweet potato pudding was both unusual and familiar, imparting a sense of the past without compromising the sensibilities of a present-day palate.
We don’t know how often the Grenvilles made this potato pudding, but I’m going to add it to my own family’s Thanksgiving menu this year, and I hope that you will, too.