It can get a bit addictive, can’t it.
So observed one of my fellow potato pickers as the Wicklow light waned and vegetable grower John Swaby-Miller – a.k.a. Johnny English – turned the last row of potatoes at the end of crisp December day. For one Sunday only, our merry band of volunteers had donned wellies and gloves and had plucked and washed rows upon rows of newly unearthed Sarpo Axona potatoes. Now, muddy-kneed and rosy-cheeked, it was time to go home, each toting a 5kg hessian sack of said spuds.
These were the sacks into which the rest of the day’s harvest would be packed for sale in the run up to Christmas, to raise both funds for, and awareness of, SPUDS.ie, the voluntary community research group whose aim – by promoting the use of naturally blight-resistant potatoes, such as Sarpo Axona – is to demonstrate no less than the potential for sustainable agricultural practice in Ireland. SPUDS.ie founder, Kaethe Burt-O’Dea, also hopes to raise funds to support another run of her Crisps with a Conscience, made from potatoes of an unusual shape that are normally discarded. Those who buy these bags of Christmas spuds can be guaranteed some good seasonal eating and a lot of seasonal goodwill.
The fruits of our picking labours – packed in attractive 5kg hessian sacks – will be for sale from Dec 13 up until Christmas at the following Dublin locations:
Craft & Design Christmas Pop Up Shop at Block T, Smithfield, open Dec 12 – 15 & Dec 19 – 22 from 11:30am – 18:30pm, late opening Thursdays 20:00.
Dublin Flea and Block T Christmas Cracker, Smithfield, December 13-15
The Lilliput Stores Christmas Hamper Market at The Joinery in Arbour Hill from Dec 20 – Dec 23
What, do you suppose, is the collective noun most appropriately applied to a set of newly acquired cookbooks?
An anticipation perhaps, or an expectation – it is those things to begin with. As their numbers rise – and certainly once it approaches double digits – it becomes more of a saturation – perhaps even an impossibility – as you realise that their sheer numbers may defeat you.
I have been watching the pile of newly published and Irish-authored cookbooks grow steadily on my kitchen table, especially over the last month or two – Gill & Macmillan having been kind enough to send review copies of several recently published titles, added to a slew of acquisitions at book launches and elsewhere, many written by friends and fellow bloggers and writers – not to mention others that I have flicked through and (somehow) resisted acquiring. Here follows a run down for anyone in the mood to expand their own collection (though perhaps not all at once).
The description, in the Irish Beef Book, of the eye of the round, tells us that it is the shape of this cut that gives it its alternative designation – namely ‘salmon’ of beef. There is also a note about the champion Irish racehorse “said to have been named after the inevitable, unchanging main course choices offered to guests at functions held in Dublin’s Burlington Hotel.” It is perhaps no small irony, in the light of the horse meat scandal earlier this year, that ‘Beef or Salmon‘ was the name of that noted steed.
It was a mighty busy week last week and no mistake. Amongst the various goings on, yours truly featured in last Friday’s installment of Dublin City FM‘s Sodshow with Peter Donegan, to which you can listen back below (and, yes, the interview was recorded much earlier this year – at Sonairte‘s Potato Day – hence the springtime talk of potatoes chitting in my hallway).
Curiously enough, it was when I reemerged from the recording of said interview that I stumbled into what I later christened The Great Potato Standoff of 2013 – an incident which had everything to do with the feverish interest generated by the return of the Lumper potato last March. And, as I learned this week, those newly-resurrected Famine-era spuds are far from a flash in the pan…
Back in March of this year, Marks & Spencer Ireland announced a limited three week run of Lumpers, grown for them by Michael McKillop of Glens of Antrim Potatoes. It signalled the first time that the Lumper potato – which had been the mainstay of the Irish peasant farmer in the pre-Famine era, and which had succumbed in such devastating fashion to the onslaught of blight in 1845 – had been grown in any kind of significant quantity in Ireland in around 170 years.
At this top of this page, you’ll find a lot of talk about blight (it’s a fascinating topic, I promise). At the bottom of the page, after all the blighty stuff, there’s some information for anyone – but particularly restaurants around Dublin and Wicklow – who would be interested in trying out, and reporting back on, what may well be a new-to-them variety of potato, namely the floury textured Sárpo Axona, a naturally blight resistant variety that is grown with a minimum of chemical inputs, and holds up taste wise too. By all means, skip ahead to that part if you like.
Orange 8. Green 5. Pink 6. Blue 13.
Rather like Mr. Pink et al. in filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s cult crime classic, Reservoir Dogs, the apparently cutesy colour assignments above are anything but. According to a presentation made at the GIY Gathering in Waterford last September by Dr. Ewen Mullins of Teagasc, that little rainbow of titles refers to the different families of blight found in Ireland, and the damage they inflict on a potato crop can indeed be criminal. And while there are a myriad maladies that can afflict the potato – they come assorted viral, bacterial and fungal forms – along with brigades of baleful beasties – slugs, nematodes and wire worms, to name but a few – it is blight that made the history books and blight that is feared above all others; that its Latin name, Phytophthora Infestans, means plant destroyer is no accident. That there has, in the past, been research into its suitability as a biological weapon is not all that surprising either.
And so it is that almost any conversation about potato cultivation comes around, sooner or later, to the topic of blight resistance. Better blight resistance is the chief focus of the continuing (to say nothing of contentious) trial of GM potatoes by Teagasc – you can read more on the ins and outs of that particular topic over here – while the Welsh-based Sárvari Trust, under the stewardship of blight expert Dr. David Shaw, continues – on a wing and a prayer – to develop and promote the Sárpo family of potatoes, which have high levels of natural blight resistance.
Why should you care?
I do tire of spud-bashing.
In the healthy eating context, I mean.
All too often, potatoes end up on the wrong side of the whats-good-for-you conversation, as things that we need to eat less of, or seek alternatives to. They are, perhaps, the victims of the extreme success with which they marry with butter and cheese and a great many other fats. From Joel Rubuchon’s legendary butter-laden potato purée to your everyday bag of crisps, it seems that spuds provide a highly accessible parking spot for additional calories.
But potatoes themselves are not the source of this excess and – as I may have mentioned once or twice before – they make for quite a tidy nutritional package. What’s more, they can play just as well with card-carrying super foods – unregulated as that term may be – as with those apparently fiendish fats (though the fact is that our bodies need a certain amount of those too).
To prove my point, I made some mash. And not just any old mash but one that is probably about as far away as you could get from Joel Rubuchon’s all-butter version (though it does not shun butter entirely). It’s a recipe inspired both by Extreme Greens – Sally McKenna’s wonderful guide to making the most of mineral-rich seaweed, and a book that I have been delving into a lot over the past few months – and by a presentation which Dorcas Barry made at the Savour Kilkenny Foodcamp last month on eating to stay young. That talk featured much that was raw and green and vibrant, just like this mash.
We were chatting about potatoes in East Africa, as you do.
“They call them Irish,” said Shane, who was manning the reception desk in Dublin’s Irish Aid Voluteering & Information Centre. I had called in because the centre, in conjunction with Irish aid charity Vita, had been hosting a potato-themed photographic exhibition and related events around last month’s World Food Day.
Shane had spent a good deal of time in various East African countries where – most likely due to the presence of Irish missionaries and aid workers down through the years – “Irish” had become a synonym for potatoes (in much the same way that, when it arrived in Ireland first, the potato was often referred to as An Spáinneach – meaning the Spaniard – as it was they who had introduced the tuber to Europe). And while the potato is a largely non-traditional African crop, the vegetable which kept Irish populations fed for centuries – except, famously, when it didn’t, of course – is one which, it turns out, has a lot to offer countries in the African region.
The potato is more efficient, more nutritious, and more profitable than any other staple crop… and is ideally suited to places where land is limited and labor abundant – conditions that characterize much of the developing world.
Remember the horror that was (and still is) Tayto chocolate?
Personally, it’s something that I have been trying to forget (though for some perverse reason, a half-eaten bar of the stuff still lurks in the cupboard; no sugar craving has proved desperate enough to result in consumption of same chez Spud, and that’s saying something). Happily, the whole experience was redeemed somewhat recently by a gift brought back from the States by thoughtful friends and which proved, at least, that crisps-in-a-chocolate-bar can work.
Before I get to this week’s spud topic, this is something that I think is worth your attention.
Tuesday was the Irish Government’s Budget Day – delivered to the tune of their austerity anthem – while Wednesday was no less than World Food Day – an initiative of the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organisation, with a theme based around sustainable food systems and food security (or how we ensure that people have ongoing access to food without destroying the planet in the process). On Thursday, however, it was another organisation that brought the intersection of these two events into sharp, local focus when news of an urgent appeal for support by Irish Seed Savers hit social media channels.
Irish Seed Savers is a Co. Clare based non-governmental organisation dedicated to the conservation of Ireland’s plant genetic resources, and they maintain a seed bank with over 600 rare and endangered vegetable varieties, along with native Irish apple and grain collections, as well (of course) as a collection of heirloom varieties of potato. In their appeal, they point out that knowledge of, and access to, this seed base brings with it at least some control over Ireland’s future food security, but with severe cuts in funding from the Dept. of Agriculture in recent years, the survival of Irish Seed Savers – like the survival of the seeds they save – is in very real danger. You can read about the appeal and ways to support the organisation here.
I used to think of Tayto – or, rather, Largo Foods, Ray Coyle’s snack manufacturing business, which makes Tayto, Hunky Dorys, King Crisps and others here in Ireland – as the big fish in crisp terms. And, relative to some of the newer entrants to the Irish crisp market, like Keogh’s and O’Donnells, that, I suppose, is the case. This week, however, has given my big fish notions a bit of Big Food perspective.