"the digging of the root called 'batata' (a new but good thing in our neighbourhood which our folk have made into "taties")"

Potato Sprout
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePotato Sprout - Credit: Sanjay Acharya
The potato was first cultivated in South America between three and seven thousand years ago. The Spanish conquistadors encountered the potato when they arrived in Peru in 1532.  Early Spanish writers used the Indian word batata, which actually referred to the sweet potato.  After the arrival of the potato in Spain in 1570, a few Spanish farmers began to cultivate them on a small scale, mostly as food for livestock. From Spain, potatoes slowly spread to Italy and other European countries during the late 1500s. By 1600, the potato had reached Italy, Austria, Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, England, Germany, Portugal and Ireland. Throughout Europe, however, potatoes were regarded with suspicion, distaste and fear.  They were generally used only as animal fodder. Even peasants refused to eat from a plant that produced ugly, misshapen tubers and that had come from a heathen civilization.

In England, the authorities recognised the potential of potatoes as a hardy and nutritious food crop. In 1662, the Royal Society recommended the cultivation of the tuber to the English government and the nation, but both rural and urban populations remained extremely suspicious of the vegetable.  However, as food shortages associated with the Revolutionary Wars began to take effect across the country, the English government officially encouraged potato cultivation, and the much maligned tuber began to establish itself as a staple food.  Blackmore’s characters would thus have been among the first people in rural England to cook and eat potatoes.