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Potatoes were banned due to leprosy fears

There was a period when the humble spud was potato-non-grata in France

It is hard today to think of potatoes as anything other than a staple food but they were illegal in France between 1748 and 1772.

Potatoes were originally introduced into Europe by Spaniards, who brought them back from the Inca Empire in South America.

However, French people did not trust the new food, which was used mainly for feeding pigs, and in 1748 growing potatoes was banned by parliament as they were thought to spread disease, especially leprosy.

People saw the potato as strange and dangerous because they were grown underground and they were avoided even by starving peasants.

That all changed after army medical officer Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by the Prussians during the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763) and during his time in prison was fed potatoes and noticed no adverse affects.

Potatoes were a staple of the Prussian diet and a food they grew themselves to get round the French blockade of grain imports.

When released Parmentier began promoting their consumption as they were filling and did not need much work to grow on the farm. He suggested potatoes as an alternative to grain in time of famine saying they could be used like flour for baking.

He carried out various potato-based publicity stunts to publicise the new food and hosted dinner parties for the likes of Benjamin Franklin which were full of potato dishes.

Parmentier presented King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette with bouquets of potato blossoms; leading to Marie-Antoinette wearing the flowers on her hat.

He also put armed guards on his potato patch to make them seem like precious produce, so encouraging people to ‘steal’ the vegetable.

In 1772, his efforts were rewarded, as the potato was declared as edible by the Paris Faculty of Medicine.

Although there was still some resistance, its popularity grew, encouraged by bad harvests and famine, when the potato was a lifeline.

Louis XVI congratulated him, saying: “France will not forget that you found food for the poor.”

By 1840, the annual crop was 117 million hectolitres.

Parmentier’s work has not been forgotten; many dishes containing potato carry his name, such as the cottage pie-like Hachis Parmentier.

When he died in 1813, he was buried in a plot ringed by potato plants, and his bronze statue stands over the Place Parmentier in Mont­didier in the Somme, Picardy, while a sculpted peasant receives potatoes below.

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