Where would we be without Italian tomatoes, Irish potatoes and Belgian chocolate? The reality is that these and many other plants familiar to us today are not indigenous to Europe.
Europe’s eating habits would be very different had explorer Christopher Columbus not set out to find a faster route from Spain to the Spice Islands of south-east Asia (also known as the Moluccas). Heading westwards from Spain, he set sail in August 1492 and arrived two months later in the Bahamas. Following his ‘discovery’ of the New World (this was not news to those who already lived there), the transfer of numerous plants and animals between the new continent and the Old World inevitably began.
On their return to Europe, Columbus and his crew brought selections of previously unknown plants and spices with them from the new territories. These new foodstuffs were met with a mixed reception. Some, like the tomato, were considered to be poisonous, while others were thought good only for display purposes. Nonetheless, the interest in these new plants led to the creation of botanical gardens tasked with acclimatising new species to Europe’s colder conditions.
The benefits and potential uses of the unfamiliar plants were eventually recognised. Their introduction led to a profound change in the diet of Europeans and, in due course, the rest of the world. As the plants were distributed across the planet, the unfamiliar species - tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cacao, corn, vanilla, peanuts and more – not only enriched the cuisines of Europe, Asia and Africa, but also had a major impact on global culture, economics and politics.
Some new species (such as corn and sweet potato) were instantly identified by those early explorers as convenient foodstuffs for long journeys. Their positive culinary experiences led to immediate acceptance of these new food sources when they arrived back home. However, other food plants were received with reluctance and were only slowly integrated into the European diet.
Today, it’s hard to imagine our European diet without potatoes and tomatoes but initially these two were thought to be toxic. It wasn’t until the end of the 17th century that tomatoes were included in the diet of southern Europe, and it took until the late 18th century for potatoes to become widely accepted. Many other plants (cassava and papaya included) were never cultivated in Europe but were taken instead to other continents where they became an essential part of people's diets.
It is difficult today to imagine our European diet without the influence of such non-indigenous species brought back from colonial ventures. However, access to these new foodstuffs was obtained at a vast human cost. Today’s European diet reveals that colonisation, not least in the culinary sense, also has a lasting impact upon the colonisers.