Dunno about you, but I avoided Pinterest for the longest time.
Not because it didn’t look good – quite the reverse, in fact. A world of virtual pin boards, teeming with pretty pictures and inspiring visuals, covering almost any subject you care to mention, Pinterest had (and has) a lot going for it in the looks department. No, I figured, you see, that I couldn’t afford to become seduced by another social network, that I should be strong in the face of its visual charm, that I should, in a word, resist, but resistance – as any reader of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will know – is useless.
This is especially true of Pinterest, with its image-based format so supremely suited to the short attention span of the average netizen. Once I had succumbed – for succumb I did – blog posts became the stuff of potatoey pin boards, making years of spudly content visible at a single glance and demonstrating that it was the waiting that had, in fact, been useless.
Last week, you see, I was all about the heady heights of the Ballymaloe Lit Fest.
There was me and there was Madhur Jaffrey and the world was a-glow with possibilities. First stop, aloo gobi, next stop, who knows where.
This week, there is cheese and onion chocolate. A place to which I didn’t particularly want to go.
Yet here it is (or, at least, there it was in my local Centra), the union, in a single wrapper, of Tayto cheese & onion crisps and milk chocolate.
Now, the first thing to know is that, in Ireland, the combination of crisps and chocolate is, to use that most nondescript of descriptions, a thing. I have – and I know I am not alone in this – enjoyed meals of Tayto cheese & onion and Cadbury’s dairy milk, usually in that order and most memorably when my Da would bring both items home as a treat. Perhaps a chocolate bar with embedded Tayto was an inevitability but – guess what? – that sweet chocolatey ooze in your gob smacks mostly of onion and, with that, all desire to let it linger disappears.
Afterward, it tastes like you’ve downed a bag of Tayto, which seems unfair, given that you haven’t had the pleasure. The fundamental problem, I think, is that the crisp-chocolate balance is all wrong (well that, and the fact that the chocolate isn’t great to begin with). The real joy of crisps and chocolate is that you get to have the satisfying savoury crunch of the crisp followed by some silky chocolate sweetness. This bar manages, sadly, to rob you of both.
The Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine should come with a health warning: attending this event may leave you lost for words. This turns out to be a somewhat debilitating state of affairs when faced with the prospect of scraping together a few Spud Sunday syllables, which come to you here in a delayed Monday form (for which delay said LitFest can also be blamed). It is also testament to the world class calibre of this weekend’s line up which – with a Madhur Jaffrey here, a Jancis Robinson there and a Claudia Roden seemingly everywhere – gathered together the great and the good of food and wine writing and served a beguiling pick and mix of demos, tastings, walks and talks in the beautiful surroundings of Ballymaloe. With topics ranging from foraging to fermentation to food writing itself, there was no shortage of stimulation for both creative and digestive juices, and I expect I’ll be digesting what I’ve seen and heard for quite some time to come.
And of course (before you ask) there were spuds. Whether it was learning from Madhur Jaffrey the secrets of Aloo Gobi (which she described as a most beloved North Indian dish) or applauding Matthew Fort as he decried the use of humble to describe what is, after all, the most noble of vegetables, there were spud references aplenty. For those, it seems, I am never at a loss.
Well now, this is embarassing.
There I go, week in, week out, presenting the potato as a force for good when, all the while, there is a dark side to consider. And no, I’m not talking about blighted blackstuff or the evils of french fried excess. No, though I do so grudgingly, I feel I must, in the grand historical scheme of things, include Spud the Usurper in the catalog of culinary villains.
It was last weekend’s Slow Roots Symposium in Sandbrook House, Co. Carlow, that put my potato-pushing into perspective, specifically the presentation by culinary arts students from the Cork Institute of Technology of a paper entitled: A Study of Irish Food Culture before the Arrival of the Potato.
“Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves — anything, that is, except the work we do ‘to make a living.’ For everything else, we feel like we’ve lost the skills, or that there’s someone who can do it better.”
Though Micheal Pollan might, I think, have missed the news about this weekend’s Grandmothers’ Day events at Sandbrook House in Ballon, Co. Carlow, I suspect, reading the extract from his forthcoming book, that he would have approved.
The extract paints a dizzying picture of an economic world, spinning ever faster on an axis of relentless specialisation, a process which, at the same time, binds us in a tourniquet of learned helplessness and leaves us hopelessly disconnected from the origins of our food. He articulates the case for loosening those bonds, “making visible again many of the lines of connection” with our greater food system through the medium of cooking (or equally, one might infer, through practising the many other food skills with which our forebears were familiar).
And it is that reclaiming of lost skills and passing on of inherited wisdom that underlie both yesterday’s Slow Roots symposium and today’s Slow Food Ireland family event at Grandmothers’ Day. It seems appropriate, then, to introduce you to winter buttermilk, one old way with food that I have recently discovered, and one which is, to my mind, well worth remembering.
The thing about winter buttermilk is that it is not, in fact, buttermilk at all.
What’s more is that, despite what its name might lead you to believe, winter buttermilk has a dairy content of precisely zero, containing neither butter nor milk nor moo nor cow, but flour and water and – perhaps somewhat inevitably, given my well-documented obsession – spuds. It also (and this is the important thing) makes for a damn fine loaf of soda bread.
I’m not even sure of the name of the storybook – and it’s long out of print by now – but I vividly recall that our all-time favourite tale was the one about Boney Bart. Its official title was “The Thin Cook” and Boney Bart was the eponymous chef who, one day, due to his all-too-thin frame, came to a rather unfortunate end involving a cook-sized mincer.
It was a bit more Roald Dahl than Dr. Seuss but, as kids, we were clearly not averse to a spot of kitchen horror and loved having our Da recount the not-so-happily-ever-after yarn of Boney Bart. There were other stories too – usually relayed from Dad’s familiar armchair position and not always involving a bad end and a mincer – and though we eventually swapped fairy tales for something more grown up, we would always return to hear his stories and, in turn, regale him with our own (or at least to the extent, in later years, that his worsening deafness would allow).
It’s a year to the day since he slipped away and, though we still have lots of stories for him, it’s a bit harder for him to hear us now (yes, even harder than when we had to shout at him on the phone). He loved this time of year, with its lengthening days and promise of new growth and, among other stories, would have been pleased to hear that this week saw the planting of my hopeful little crop of potatoes for this year.
And so it is that potatoes go on, and life goes on, and Da’s story is our new favourite tale. Like the story of Boney Bart, it’s one that we will never tire of hearing.
Have one in your mouth, be peeling a second, have a third in your fist, and your eye on the fourth.
So went an old Irish saying, referring to a time in this country when meals for many were composed of potatoes and little else (and when five-a-day meant five kilos of potatoes, the average daily intake of an adult male in the years leading up to the Famine). The saying was recalled by Pádraic Óg Gallagher of Gallagher’s Boxty House on Bia Dúchais, a series on TG4 which explores Irish culinary heritage and whose attention, last week, focused on our relationship with the potato, from early adoption and dependency, to the blighted years of the Famine and, later, to the arrival of the Irish-Italian chipper and the modern potato crisp (five kilos a day of which, however tasty, is probably not to be recommended).
Spuds. When I’m not eating them, I’m wearing them. Sometimes I even do both at the same time.
Did they know that?
No, but it wouldn’t have surprised them. Not one little bit.
Not the possession of a snake skin and potato pendant, nor the library of potato books, not the mr. and mrs. potato head, nor the glass potato (exhibit b., below), nor any of the assorted items of a spud nature – along with real, actual spuds – that I call my own.