Parmentier, Antoine-Augustin

23 October 2012

"Contrary to popular legend, Parmentier did not 'invent' the potato"
Silly French. Everyone knows Raleigh invented the potato.

By the time Parmentier came on the scene, the humble spud was already fairly well known in many European countries, especially Ireland and Germany. The spread of the potato across Europe seems to have been helped by the fact that people confused it with the recently introduced sweet potato, which, with its richly sweet, deep orange flesh, was thought to be a potent aphrodisiac.

Perhaps surprisingly, this failed to convince the French, who thought the potato was hardly fit to feed animals. As a cousin to deadly nightshade, it was sure to cause leprosy or dysentery, and in any case, if it had been meant to have been eaten, surely it would have been mentioned in the bible?

Luckily for frite-lovers everywhere, a talented young pharmacist called Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was taken prisoner by the Prussians during the Seven Years' War. For five years he had little other than potatoes to eat, and was surprised to find, at war's end, that he was still in excellent health.

Parmentier contemplating a bouquet of potato flowers.
Image in the public domain; taken from  Wikimedia Commons

During the years of famines and grain shortages that followed, Parmentier tirelessly promoted potatoes as an alternative food source using a combination of sound scientific research and some slick PR, including persuading Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to wear matching sprays of potato flowers, and hosting elaborate potato-themed dinners for the local aristocracy.

Parmentier's eventual success is commemorated in the many potato dishes in French cuisine that bear his name, like last week's Potatoes Parmentier.

This week, we followed that up with the more rustic Hachis Parmentier, or cottage pie to you and me. I took some leftover oxtail stew (we used Hugh's recipe) and piled over it a thick layer of buttery mashed potato, with a crushed raw garlic clove mixed in. Covered in breadcrumbs and drizzled with melted butter then baked in a hot oven, it made a warming and comforting, but exotically perfumed and intensely savoury dinner. Sadly though, the stew was a little too wet, which explains why it's no looker.

I took a moment at this point to get some feedback on this post so far:

Karen: I think you should explain more about the texture mishap
Karen: because you had a lot to say about it at the time
me: a lot of swear words

Wet stew does two things to your cottage pie. Firstly, it makes it hard to spread your mash out evenly; instead, I had small islands of mash floating in the gravy, which bubbled up around them, leaving the volcanic-looking surface you see here, rather than the pristine fluffy clouds I'd hoped for. Secondly, the mash starts to dissolve in the liquid, meaning that in this case most of the dish had melded together into a soft, purplish puree.

Luckily, two things saved it from being entirely like baby food: the crispy, buttery breadcrumbs, and above all that flavour - anise, cinnamon, chocolate, and wine, which lifted it from the homely to the sensual.

As well as potatoes, Parmentier is remembered for his contributions to the development of maize, chestnuts, and Jerusalem artichokes. He also apparently published a paper comparing the nutritional value of milk from cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, and women. Sadly I couldn't find this paper at the British Library, so can't tell you what his conclusions were.

To see a bit more about how Parmentier is remembered in Paris today, take a look at The Daily Spud, a blog I cannot recommend highly enough. Books I found useful this week: Potato: A Global History, by Andrew Smith; The Untold History of the Potato, by John Reader; and Parmentier, by Anne Muratori-Philip, although I wished my French were a little better for the latter.

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