20 September 2022
As Lidl Sweden has just announced it will stop transporting fresh potatoes and other vegetables by air, with a drive towards selling more local produce, we have taken a look at the country's potato history.
DISCOUNT chain Lidl's Swedish branch recently began circulating an image picturing all the birds that stopped flying, including the kiwi, as it pledged to sell more local potatoes (and other vegetables) and stop buying imports.
It's a bold move for the chain, but its move is reminiscent of the potato's first appearance in the country in the 18th century, and the important role it came to play in Sweden's produce offering.
The potato first arrived in Sweden in 1658. Potatoes were grown in the Uppsala Botanical Garden (in what is now the Linnaean Garden) by Swedish scientist and writer Olaus Rudbeck, who was active in many scientific areas.
It was relatively late in the process of its spread across Europe and, when it did, it stayed mostly in the greenhouses of the rich. When they were treated as food rather than a curiosity, it was to feed animals with.
It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that potatoes were widely planted, harvested and eaten. The Swedes, being a frugal lot, discovered that not only were potatoes good on their own, but that they made a good vodka.
Swedish scientist and countess, Eva Ekblad, rescued the spud from being the rarefied preserve of the aristocracy and made it into the popular diet inclusion it has become today. It went on to save Sweden from hunger, boost alcohol production and power the industrial revolution.
In 1748, Eva became the first woman to be elected to the Swedish Academy of Sciences. The choice was based on the new ideas of the Enlightenment, where women could publicly appear as intellectual, educated and creative individuals.
The same year she was selected, she described how to use the newly-introduced vegetable potato as a raw material for the production of bread and starch, but also for powders and spirits. The latter is still what she is best known for. Eva Ekblad is sometimes described as Sweden's first female chemist.
Jonas Alströmer (1685 –1761), a pioneer of agriculture and industry in Sweden, was also pivotal in popularising the cultivation of potatoes. He was the first to work for potatoes to be grown on a large scale and used for human consumption.
He was the man who taught the Swedish people to eat and grow potatoes, started manufacturing plants in the textile industry and ran Alingsås as one of the main industrial cities during the mid-18th Century.
Having lived and worked in England for several years, he realised how much further ahead it was in industrial development compared to his native country, and began considering how much money was disappearing from Sweden owing to it not being able to manufacture various goods itself.
He subsequently travelled to France and, from there, sent an application to start a manufacturing plant in Alingsås. He obtained the lease on Höjentorp's royal estate (between Skara and Skövde) and it was here that he was able to further his knowledge on potato cultivation, as well as minerals and soil types.
In Sweden, vodka was originally made from grapes and grains but the potato took over as did a government monopoly on production. According to the book The Vodka Companion: A Connoisseur's Guide by Desmond Begg: "Potatoes, a cheaper raw material than wheat at the time, were first used in distillation in the 1790s."
With the invention of the continuous still and other technological advances, potatoes became easier to use as raw material in the early-to-mid 1800s.
In 1917 Vin & Sprit was formed when the state liquor company purchased the largest rectifying company, giving it a monopoly on manufacture, retail, and importation of all alcohlic beverages. This monopoly lasted until around 1995 when Sweden joined the European Union. It kept control of retailing (Systembolaget) but sold off state-owned production.
Peter Ekelund, the main creator of Karlsson's vodka, said that under V&S control, all spirits were supposed to be made from potatoes, although this was more of a "compulsary agreement" than a law. It was a farm subsidy agreement which is likely to have dated back to post-WWII. These were ‘starch potatoes’ that had no real flavour.
All vodka was made from potatoes, with the exception of Absolut, a brand dating back to 1979, which was made from grains. The reason this was allowed, is that it was made purely for the export market.
The Swedish fresh (new) potato, or färskpotatis, is widely admired in the country. The potatoes arrive on the market in mid-May, with prices reflecting their high status. In the färska potatisar food culture, their arrival signifies the end of winter and warm times ahead.
The fresh potato comes to the market with a bit of slightly moist dirt and the peeling away of the first layer of skin.
Sources: The Independent, Lost In A Pot, KTH Library, Vastsverige , Alcademics
Photo: Emanuel Ekström