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From farm to fork: about the history of potatoes in Sweden

The potato has played a very important role in Sweden over the last two centuries. Initially, they were used as an emergency food and for baking bread, but towards the end of the 19th century they became the backbone of the Swedish diet.

Potato production in the parish of Sollerön, Dalarna. Photo: Håll Nils Mattsson (Archive record: Isof, Uppsala 2620:2)

Potatoes fed a growing population

When potatoes first started to be widely consumed by the population, they were used as animal feed and in bread baking. Once it became the mainstay of the diet a few decades into the 19th century, after several years of famine at the end of the 18th century, it was primarily eaten boiled or fried, with whatever was added. Some potato dishes were based on mixtures with different kinds of flour and milk or eggs. Examples include "kroppkaka", "rårakor", "palt", "kams", "raggmunk" and "potatiskaka". Many dishes are linked to specific regions and the names vary accordingly. Baking bread with potatoes as the main ingredient became particularly common in upper Dalarna and northwards. Many of the informants in the archives have told us about the importance, cultivation and uses of potatoes.

During the first half of the 19th century, Sweden's population increased sharply, while potato cultivation doubled during the first two decades. Above all, it was the unsettled part of the population that grew, the so-called agricultural proletariat, smallfarmers , crofters and cottagers. Potato farming made those with limited resources more comfortable, gave them a chance to feed their families, and made them better equipped to cope with crop failures and famine.

For the agricultural labourers, whose numbers grew considerably in the 19th century, the potato became a staple of their diet. A potato field, or a few furrows in the field, was part of their fringe benefits. Many poor people at this time lived more or less on potatoes, which they dipped in various kinds of porridge, brine, rafts or lingonberries, if there was no salted herring left in the barrel or pork left in the tin.

Potato peeling in Vilhelmina, Lappland, in 1948. From the record "A settler family's working year 1910-1911". Photo: Nils Eriksson (Archive record: Isof, Uppsala 30863)


Spirits paved the way

There was another reason why potatoes became established in the country: in the early 19th century, people learnt that it was possible to make spirits from potatoes.

It was the scientist Eva Ekeblad (born de la Gardie) who made the discovery in 1748. She also experimented with other uses for potatoes, which resulted in the use of potato flour instead of the toxic powder that was used in large quantities at the time. Thanks to her discoveries, Eva Ekeblad became the first woman to be elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

The possibility of using potatoes for distillation increased the demand and thus the area under cultivation.

Spirits consumption was high in the first half of the 19th century, and home distilling was an important part of subsistence farming. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, around 80-85 % of the country's farmers had a home distillery. The by-product of distilling spirits is called drank, and it was considered important as animal feed. Distillation consumed large quantities of both potatoes and grain, and in times when food was scarce, home distilling was temporarily banned, for the first time in 1776, so that the harvest could be used for food instead. But distilling became a political hot potato and was not completely banned until 1855, when the Swedish Parliament decided that the newly formed Household association would receive a share of the tax revenue that the sale of spirits now generated for the Crown. Spirits consumption declined and most people had already switched to buying spirits produced at large factory distilleries. In addition, coffee became a beverage alternative.


Starch and potato flour

In addition to spirits, potato flour was made by extracting the starch from potatoes. In households, grating potatoes was an autumn chore, and people from several households often got together to help. Food and drink were usually served at the so-called 'rivekalasen'. Once the potatoes had been carefully cleaned and grated, either by hand or on a special grater, the grated potatoes were placed on sacks tied over barrels. By rinsing the grated potatoes with water, the starch was drained off, filtered and collected at the bottom of the vessel as a cake. The starch was left to dry, cut into pieces and ground or grated into flour or potato grits. The flour was used in cooking and baking, but also as a powder and to strengthen textiles. The groats were mainly used for porridge and soups. In the 19th century, many starch factories were set up in the country, and some distilleries eventually switched to starch production.

Today there is also a large production of potato flour and contract farming of particularly starchy potatoes, mainly in Blekinge and north-eastern Skåne. Contract farming means that the grower signs a contract with a food industry to supply a certain amount of crop. This may be a starch factory, a sugar mill or other processing industry.

Potato grinding in Grimstorp in 1903. "Gustaf Andersson and his son Filip pull the potato grinder, his daughter Hulda carries potatoes, Johannes Andersson takes up water". Photo: Gustaf Ewald/Vänersborg Museum (CC BY-SA)

"Up and eat" and "Magnus my brother"

There have been many local potato varieties, as most took seed from the potatoes grown the year before. They were often named after the place where the seed came from or after their appearance, such as "White Kidney Potato", "Goose", "Red Hell's Bells" and "White Early Ripe". It was important that the first potato was ready for Larsmäss on 10 August. The early potatoes were therefore called "Larsmässpotatis" or "Larsmässer". Even before that, people started to harvest, or harvest the potato stalls, by inserting their hand and harvesting the largest tubers. In the south of the country this could be done at midsummer, in the north only at the end of July.

Older varieties that were bred and spread at the end of the 19th century included Up-to-date, also known as Upp och ät ("Up and Eat"), and Magnus Bonum, which was popularly known as "Magnus my brother".

"Potato harvesting on Erik Eriksson's farm. Erik is carrying a sack of potatoes home. Nils is chopping potato leaves. Auselius tears up the leaves. Frans and Anna pick up potatoes". Illustration from the record En nybyggarfamiljs arbetsår 1910-1911 by Nils Eriksson in Vilhelmina, Lapland (Archive record: Isof, Uppsala 30863).

"Päranna" and "päregillen"

The potato harvest in the autumn, also known as "päranna", brought together people from several farms who helped each other. It was called potato help in some places, and both children and adults were involved in the work. These were also opportunities for those who needed extra income and a chance for a meal, as the joint work usually ended with a feast, a päregille. There are many stories in the archives about traditions related to the planting and harvesting of potatoes.


Setting in below

Ideas and experiences passed down between generations provided guidelines for when it was most appropriate to plant the potatoes. This varied from place to place in the country and could be when the hedgerows were in flower or when the swede had arrived. Certain calendar days could also be landmarks, and there was a strong belief associated with the phases of the moon; potatoes were important to plant when the moon was below, as they grow underground.

"Planting the potatoe. Furrows drawn by päraln [Eng. loosely: täter-in]. The potatoes are put in the furrows which are then shovelled shut." From the record "A settler family's working year 1910-1911". Illustration: Nils Eriksson i Vilhelmina, Lapland (Archive record: Isof, Uppsala 30863).

Original Swedish contribution and more information see here:


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