BOCCONI DI STORIA: Federico il Grande e il “potage Parmentier”

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Frederick II of Hohenzollern, known as Frederick the Great, ascended the throne as the third King of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg in 1740. He embodied the eighteenth-century archetype of an enlightened despot, entertained friendship and correspondence with Voltaire and Johann Sebastian Bach: Bach’s Das Musicalisches Opfer BWV 1079 (The Musical Offering) is dedicated to the philosopher-king. Thanks to his expansionist policy, in a few decades Frederick II made the small Prussian kingdom one of the main European powers. Remembered mainly for his numerous wars, “the old Fritz” (der alte Fritz), nicknamed by his soldiers, was however not only a great commander.

As soon as he ascended the throne, he initiated important reforms to protect arts and sciences and was tolerant in religious matters. “A Sovereign was originally designed for the Good of the People; this is therefore what a Prince ought to prefer to every other Consideration; and Justice alone ought to be the Guide of all his Actions…the Sovereign, far from being the absolute Master of his People, is nothing more than their chief Servant” (Frederick II, Anti-Machiavel, Chapter I). This fragment of his work reveals a great sensitivity and intelligence; he theorized a new ideal of the sovereign as a guide that prioritizes the well-being of his country and people over his personal gain.

For a kingdom so frequently at war, the problem of procurement of supplies is crucial. Frederick II knew well the mind of the people he ruled and did not hesitate to exploit the curiosity and greed of the people to implement the Kartoffelbefehl, the intensive cultivation of potatoes. It was an excellent idea, given that with the armies that came and went on cultivated lands, the harvest was often ruined. The tuber, on the other hand, was a perfect alternative as it grows underground.

Since the German people were not inclined to cultivate potatoes in their fields, the sovereign decided to plant some in his garden, coming to put soldiers on guard, but not enough to cover the entire perimeter. He did this to allow some curious subjects to sneak in, steal the potatoes and taste them. That is how the potato entered the agricultural and culinary culture of the Germans, helping to save thousands of people from hunger during wars and famine.

During the Seven Years War, French pharmacist and botanist Antoine Parmentier was captured and imprisoned in Germany. In the Prussian prison, he discovered the nutritional qualities of potatoes, until then considered only as pig feed in France. He returned to his homeland in 1772, took part in an anti-famine competition organized by the Academy of Besançon, and won it with a treatise on the potato. The French state assigned him land to cultivate the tuber and to deepen his agronomic knowledge. The research gave very satisfactory results: the yields were high, even on poorly fertile soils, and thus an intense public awareness campaign began.

Parmentier continued his scientific studies until 1813, the year of his death. There are so many potato-based recipes inspired by the famous botanist, including the “Parmentier potage”, that his name will always be so linked to this small tuber that fed many people.


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