Saturday, January 6, 2018

Parmentier - The Man Who Brought the Potato to French Menus

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Photograph courtesy of Michelle Grewe

While Columbus brought chocolate, chilies, maize (corn), avocado pears, pineapples and many more fruits and vegetables back to Spain, he did not bring the potato. The Spanish would have to wait another 40 years until the first potato arrived in Spain. The potato comes from the area now called Peru, and in 1532 Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire and claimed the region for Spain. 

Despite its importance as a food among the Incas, the Spanish ignored the potato.  It was the Basques, in Northern Spain, who were the first mainland Europeans to plant the potato for food, and that was another 50 years later.  Potatoes were also grown about the same time in England, Ireland, and the American colonies, but Spain and France considered the potato poisonous. The French government in the 1700’s even passed a law making it illegal to eat potatoes. 
Do not eat the potato plant
It is true that green potatoes and the plant itself are poisonous.
Photograph courtesy of cygnus921
Then came Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737 – 1813).  Parmentier was a pharmacist and is remembered as the man who made the potato an important food source for humans in France and throughout Europe.  In convincing the French to eat potatoes, he saved tens of thousands from starvation during the European famines of the 1700’s.

Dishes named after Parmentier on French menus:

Hachis Parmentier – Ground beef and chopped onions fried in butter; flavored with nutmeg and a light touch of garlic.  When the beef and onions are ready, they are placed in a casserole that has been prepared with mashed potatoes on the bottom. Finally, all will be covered with more mashed potatoes and breadcrumbs or Gruyere cheese will be sprinkled on top. The dish is placed under the grill and when the top turns a golden brown the dish is ready to be served. Hachis Parmentier may not have been the earliest recipes named after Antoine Parmentier, but it was already on French restaurant menus by the 1830’s.  The same dish made with lamb is Hachis Parmentier d'Agneau.
Hachis Parmentier with a cheese topping
In the UK you may see the traditional British dish cottage pie made with ground beef covered with mashed potatoes. When ground lamb or mutton replaces the ground beef, the dish becomes a shepherd’s pie. These dishes appeared on British menus only in the 20th century. That was 50 years after the first English tourists began visiting France and enjoying Hachis Parmentier. In the UK, the British shepherd's pie and cottage pie will be made without the garlic or the grilled cheese on top and with Worcester sauce. 

Cottage pie.
Hachis Parmentier Façon Grand-Mère indicates a Hachis Parmentier prepared as Grandma did. Foods made like grand-mère made them are French comfort foods. 

Parmentier de Poisson is Hachis Parmentier with the beef replaced by fish, and Parmentier de Canard is Hachis Parmentier with the beef replaced by duck.

Pommes Parmentier - Potatoes cuts into small cubes about  1cm x 1cm x 1cm  and fried in butter and olive oil.
Pommes Parmentier
Potage Parmentier  - A pureed leek and potato soup. The same ingredients served cold would later inspire the French Chef Louis Diat who created Vichyssoise. Diat created Vichyssoise in 1917 when he was chef de cuisine at the Ritz Carlton in New York.
Parmentier also worked on extracting sugar from sugar beet. That was at a time when (as usual) the French and the British were at war.  Then the English sea blockade prevented the import of sugar from France's sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean.  Parmentier oversaw some of the first factories producing sugar from beets.
More importantly, though even less well known was Parmentier's responsibility for the first French Government smallpox vaccination campaign.  Then in 1805, under Napoleon I, Parmentier was Inspector-General of France’s Health Services.

After Parmentier had convinced the French to eat potatoes came the recipe for French fries, chips.  The French were undoubtedly frying potatoes by the time Benjamin Franklin attended a banquet hosted by Parmentier in 1783.  That banquet served every dish from the hors d’œuvre to the dessert made with potatoes. The Belgians are credited with the recipe for French fries, chips, though Belgium only became an independent country in 1830.
Parmentier died in 1813, aged 76 he is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Paris honored Parmentier with a Metro Station in the 11th arrondissement and the Avenue Parmentier that runs through the 10th and 11th arrondissements.

Potatoes, Pomme de Terre, in the languages of France’s Neighbors:
 (Catalan – creïllera, pataquera, patatera), (Dutch - aardappel), (German - kartoffel ), (Italian – patata, patate), (Spanish -  patata). 
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Bryan G. Newman

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