The Time Travelling Cook

Tatties, Potatoes and Spuds

Apr 13, 2023

I love Tatties.

Mashed, boiled, chipped, roasted, fried, baked however you cook them it is safe to say I will eat them, although my favourite has to be a creamy mash.  Pep (the other half of Time Travel Cook)  on the other hand would probably sell his soul for a good roast potato.

I am not alone with my love of potatoes though. 5 million tons of potatoes are sold in the UK each year and Scotland alone exports nearly 400,000 tons of seed potatoes around the world each year.

So why has this particular food item become so popular and where did our tatties first appear?

Potatoes are believed to have been first cultivated in the Peru region around 10,000 years ago but this is only an estimate as the tubers don't really survive in the ground that long , so finding them on archaeological digs is almost impossible. The first dateable evidence comes from finds that have been dated to around 2500 BC and is backed up by ceramics from the same era that are in the shape of potatoes.

Above:Potato Ceramic

In the 1300s the potato was one of the main food sources for the Incan Empire and they prepared and ate potatoes in pretty much the same ways as we do now. They did have one process that hasn't really made its way to our plates and that is Chuno.

Potatoes were  laid out overnight to freeze. As the day warmed up the potatoes would thaw and then as night fell they would freeze again. This process was allow to continue until the potatoes became very soft. The water was then squeezed out leaving behind a smaller, lighter potato that could be added to or made into stews. Potatoes prepared in this way had a very long shelf life so were great for armies to carry with them and to ensure that if there were famines or crop failures, the people could still be fed using Chunos. 

With the arrival of the Spanish in the area, the potato began to make its way to Europe around 1570.  The Spanish were told that it was a food of the natives which led to potatoes being mostly consumed by the poorer members of Spanish society at first. Some people started growing it for the flowers, Prince Phillip II sent some tubers to the Pope and the peasants took the potato to their hearts.

Potatoes are an easy crop to grow, it has a lower rate of spoilage compared to other crops and it is a "bulky" item meaning it is more filling that other crops.

Most school children in the UK will know the tale of Sir Francis Drake bringing a potato back for Queen Elizabeth I. The potato was seen at this point as only really worthy of being animal feed and in fact some people would not eat it because they though it was poisonous. In  France at this time the potato was sometimes known as the Devils Apples.

It wasn't exclusively animal fodder, once again the poor took to it due to the reasons previously mentioned and it was also cheap.

It was not until around the middle of the 1700s that people in all walks of life started to have the potato as a regular vegetable.

BUT WAIT! If you have a look through some of the recipe books from the late 1600s, held by the National Library of Scotland you will see recipes for potatoes. Why are they there when the people who would be reading recipe books would not be the type of people eating potatoes at that point in time?

There are possibly 2 explanations for this. 

Some upper levels of society saw the potato as a novelty and would insist on it being made into dishes to be served to guests for fun, so recipes for potato dishes such as potato pies, started to be included in collections of recipes or receipts as they were also known.

The second possible reason is that the writers didn't mean the white potato, instead they meant the Sweet potato. The sweet potato arrived on our shores in the late 1500s and was not viewed with the suspicion that the white potato was, therefor it quickly became a delicacy. It was only eaten in well to do circles as it didn't grow well here and had to be imported, meaning of course that it was expensive. 

By the late 1700s though, whole pages of recipe/receipt books had white potato recipes within and the potato was here to stay. 

Books written for households with servants had recipes for making the potato into fancy side dishes or quick suppers, books for the poor had recipes within that used the potato as a main meal or a means to make a dish go further. People began to rely on the potato more and more  and when potato crops failed in Ireland and then later on Scotland, disaster struck.

Above: Victorian mash potato in a cup and fried potato balls

Ireland had actually seen a population boost thanks to the potato being eaten by the poor of society so when the potato famine hit between 1845 and 1852  over 1 million people died of starvation and over 2 million fled the country in search of food and a new life.

The famine was caused by Potato blight. While the potato is generally a hardy crop potato blight, which is a type of fungus, destroys whole crops when conditions are right. The bad weather in Ireland preceding 1845 meant conditions were ripe for the fungus to spread country wide.

It took nearly 100 years for the population of Ireland to recover from this.

In the Scottish Highlands around the same time, the potato crop was also effected. The numbers  in Scotland were much less than in Ireland though with around 200,000 people effected but it did have an devastating consequence for crofters, small villages and Islands, with many of the Island being deemed unable to be self sufficient and therefor a lot of Islanders left. Crofters left for bigger towns and headed abroad in search of a better life. 

Add this to the Highland clearances of the preceding 100 years and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland became vastly unpopulated.

The potato though never left the hearts of the Scots or Irish and embedded itself in the history of the traditional dishes.

Colcannon to me is a predominantly Irish dish thanks to my maternal family fleeing to Scotland from the potato famine. Mashed potato and cabbage mixed together and served with onion gravy is a favourite of mine and of course my Granny, with her strong Irish roots, made the best colcannon in the world (yes I know I am biased!) 

Haggis was traditionally served with parsnips and kale before the potato crashed onto the plate and brought its friend turnip along with it and now even 5 star hotels across Scotland have a form of Haggis, Neeps and Tatties on the menu.

I'm not complaining though as it has to be, in my view at least, one of the best meals around!

Tattie Scones, tattie soup, clapshot. cullen skink and stovies to name but a few- we took the tatties to our hearts and to our kitchen tables and it is still there.


Late 1700s Potato Pudding


6 medium potatoes, peeled, boiled and mashed

1/4 lb butter

1/4 lb sugar

3 eggs

1/2 cup of brandy

1/2 cup of raisins or sultanas or mix


Cream the butter and sugar together

Mix the mashed potato in well

Beat the eggs and add them to the potato mix a bit at a time, mixing well after each addition

Mix in the brady, again bit by bit

Stir through the raisins or sultanas

Flour lightly a damp muslin or cotton cloth ( we have used a clean tea towel before!)

Place the mixture into the cloth  and gather the cloth up and tie with string.

Steam or boil the pudding for around 1 hour. Always keeping an eye on the water to make sure it doesn't boil away.

Stovies, My Scottish Grannies way

Being both of Irish and Scottish heritage there has been some arguments in the family about the proper way to make stovies.

The name stovies comes from the word Stoved, which in cooking terms just means to cook on top of a stove. Some of my cousins insist that stovies is made with sausages and tatties, some make it with leftover beef and tatties ( I have no idea where they got this one from!) but my Scottish Granny made it with corned beef and tatties and that is they way I have always made it.

So here is my take on Stovies.

4 large (think baking potato size) potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes

1 tin of corned beef

1 onion'


salt and pepper to taste.

Pop your corned beef tin in the fridge for a couple of hours before making this and it will be easier to cut.

Cut the corned beef into cubes, about twice the size of the potato cubes

Add them to the pot with the potatoes

Dice up an onion finely and add to pot

Add salt and pepper

Mix the potato, corned beef and onion VERY GENTLY a couple of times.

Add just enough eater to almost cover the mix. Do not add too much water or you will just end up with soup.

Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and place a lid on the pot.

Simmer for about 1 hour. Keep checking to make sure the mix isn't too dry and add a wee bit water if necessary. 

The trick is to NOT STIR too much and if you have to stir, do it VERY GENTLY as you don't want the corned beef to disintegrate too much.

Serve the stovies in a bowl with bread and butter for a wonderful feel good meal.

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