So here’s the thing: if you find yourself in the vicinity of Strokestown, Co. Roscommon this coming Sunday and fancy getting some dirt under your fingernails, as well as the chance to participate – by way of digging potato beds – in an ongoing project which explores the very particular place that the spud occupies in our culture, then you should make your way to the Irish Famine Museum at Strokestown Park, where Deirdre O’Mahony will lead participants in making an “X” shaped lazy-bed on the Church Lawn at Strokestown House.
This is just one of many initiatives being undertaken by Deirdre – artist, academic and lecturer at the Centre for Creative Arts, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology – as part of her ongoing SPUD project, which has featured collaborations between farmers, artists and art agencies.
She envisions the creation of the lazy-beds at Strokestown as a collaborative, temporary famine memorial, an X-shaped bed planted with potatoes – blight resistant Sarpos, mind, not Famine-era Lumpers – creating a space in which to publicly think through present day aspects of the Famine’s legacy. The event on Sunday may also be an opportunity for attendees to see old-school sod-turning skills, as Deirdre tells me that some members of the Loy association of Ireland, who foster the tradition of using the loy – an old style, narrow spade with a single footrest – will be there.
Proceedings will start at 10 am on Sunday 29th. If you’d like to participate – and all are most welcome – then drop an email to the project curator Linda Shevlin (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Those who have read this blog over the years will know that I have written about the Dave Langford/Dermot Carey heritage potato collection many times.
Their 225+ varieties of potato, including many rare, old varieties of Irish interest which, for many years, they have displayed and spoken about at events countrywide, have made for a wonderful educational resource, a living history and an important part of our food heritage.
This past weekend I learned of an incredibly severe blow to the collection, a too-harsh lesson in the fragility of preserving old and rare varieties and of not better supporting the people who do that important work for us. While all is not entirely lost, there is much that is, and a challenge has been set for those who really believe that such things are worth preserving.
For the past six years, mid-March has been writ large in my calendar. Not, as you might imagine, because of St. Patrick’s Day in all of its greenery but rather, because it is at or around this time of year that the Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co. Leitrim, hosts its annual Potato Day.
It’s an event presided over by Hans Wieland, and a time for people to stock up on seeds for the coming season, to get advice from expert growers, and to hear talks on subjects of interest to the gardener of potatoes, be it on the importance of soil (the subject of an excellent presentation given this year by Trevor Sargent) or on GM or blight resistant spuds, or even a spin through the latest in spud developments from around the world (which was my contribution to this year’s event).
And ever-present, every year, has been a diverse display of potatoes – the rare, old and unusual spud collection that has been amassed, maintained and nurtured over a great many years by Dave Langford, and ably assisted in that task for the past 8 or 9 years by master vegetable grower Dermot Carey.
If there’s one thing I have learned about spuds over the past 6+ years, is that there’s always some new spud thing to learn.
Be it natural curiosity, or because – slowly and imperceptibly over time – I have become attuned to spud wavelengths, or because others, knowing my predilection for all things potato, pass snippets my way, there is, in my head, a steady accumulation of spud stuff. The recent few months – though they may have been largely quiet on the blog front – have been no different.
There was the friend from Mayo who, a while back, asked me to give him a call, if I were not “too busy scratting spuds.” When I rang later, he explained that in the ’70s – and, I’d imagine for many years before that – when farm workers from the West of Ireland would travel to England for seasonal work, locals would say that they were “scratting spuds in Scunthorpe.” Scratting meant digging potatoes by hand – not to be confused with apple scratting, which is the process of grinding apples up before fermentation into cider – but technology and the times we live in mean that “scratting spuds” is a phrase – and an activity – that has fallen into disuse.
On the other hand, modern times have brought us new ways, not just of harvesting, but of growing potatoes and of bending them to breeders’ wills. An article in the Observer last October told of a Dutch project – winner of an award under the USAID Grand Challenges for Development initiative – which is investigating the possibility of using salt-water to grow potatoes (and other crops).
“It’s like Marmite,” said one of the judges, “people either love it or hate it.”
Coddle, that is. Rare ould Dublin coddle. And the judges in question – myself, food and wine writer Leslie Williams and Sunday Business Post editor Gillian Nelis – had been called upon to adjudicate at what was surely a rare ould Dublin event: a Coddle Cook Off.
For those who don’t yet know enough about the dish to either love or hate it, coddle is a one-pot, throw-it-together wonder. Sausages, rashers, onions and spuds, left to simmer together on the stove for hours of a Saturday evening, becoming post-pub grub for the household’s imbibers. Perhaps it’s the idea – and the anaemic look – of boiled sausages that puts people off coddle. Why boil when you can sear and sizzle, eh? And yet, as the entries in last week’s coddle competition in Temple Bar showed, a brothy boiled sausage is no bad thing.
The competition – which raised €1000 for Epilepsy Ireland – was the brainchild of Kevin O’Toole of Chameleon and Pádraic Óg Gallagher of Gallagher’s Boxty House, and was held in conjunction with the inaugural Temple Bar Taste Trail – where punters could sample bites from any one of 10 Temple Bar restaurants – during the Temple Bar TradFest.
You really will have to excuse the tumbleweed that has been rolling around this site for nigh on several months now. I can only plead, in my defence, that there have been assorted distractions of the non-potato kind.
The important thing is, I’m back. And I’m exercised. About cabbage.
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax
Of cabbages and kings”From Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, in Through the Looking-Glass
Little did Lewis Carroll know when he penned those words how on-trend he would be years – nay centuries – later, with his cabbage reference. Yes, as 2015 has gotten underway, with its usual deluge of articles, tweets and posts about trends, food and otherwise, I read with a certain degree of bemusement in this article in the U.K. Independent that – and sorry about this kale – cabbage is the new rising star. Yup, cabbage. There is, of course, nothing wrong with cabbage, and a lot to like (except, perhaps, when you have an excess to deal with). So good on the chefs who are, we are told, now doing all sorts of things with cabbage. It’s versatile and available, cheap and green. Is and was. Before it ever took a stroll down the culinary catwalks.
Though the distillery was not on my official Canadian Tourism Commission itinerary – through whose good offices I had gotten to PEI in the first place – my ever genial and accommodating PEI guide, Grant, kindly acceded to my hopeful requests and – despite a lot of miles and a lack of time – got me to the distillery on the last day of my visit to the island, where I met the delightful Julie Shore, craft distiller and one half of the couple behind the production of Canada’s first potato vodka.
18lbs of potatoes in one bottle. Weighty stuff, this potato vodka.
Julie Shore was talking me through the process of making potato vodka at the small Prince Edward Distillery that she established in 2008 with her partner Arla Johnson in Hermanville, in the north east of the island. “Our distillery is about distilling the agriculture here on PEI,” said Julie, “and the number one crop is potatoes. That being said, potatoes are the hardest thing to distill – a potato is 80% water, so it takes a lot of potatoes to make a bottle of vodka. My colleagues look at me like I’m crazy to do it.”
After some considerable hiatus – blame life, blame whatever distractions you like – there could be no better day on which to return than on this, my sixth blog birthday.
On exactly this day six years ago – and a Sunday it was too – I found a spud in my garden and – who’da thought – a voice to go with it. Since then, I have passed through one potato, two potato, three potato, four, moved through five potato, six potato, and, with any luck, there will, in the future, be seven potato, more.
The potato – a complex carbohydrate for sure.
That was how Pádraic Óg Gallagher introduced proceedings at an event in Gallagher’s Boxty House to mark the launch of last Friday’s National Potato Day. He’s not wrong, either – if six years of writing about the potato has taught me anything, it is that there is a great deal more to the spud than meets the eye.
So, having spent the last few (admittedly sporadic) posts waxing lyrical on the spuds of Prince Edward Island – a subject with which, I must admit, I’m not quite done yet – it has finally come time to shift focus closer to home – namely to Stradbally in Co. Laois, which plays host to the Electric Picnic this weekend.
Though music may be the big draw for the festival, wander down to the Mindfield area and you’ll find the Theatre of Food, with a diverse program of talks, demos, tastes and debates. And – for those Picnic enthusiasts who actually manage to arrive and get set up by that time – you can catch me (yes, me) opening the weekend’s Theatre of Food proceedings on Friday 29th at 4.30pm with my own little Theatre of Spud, a talk MC’ed by food writer Aoife Carrigy.
I’ll be looking at the place – or places, even – that the potato occupies in Irish food culture, from your Mammy’s boiled spuds, to the devotion that inspires a collection of 200+ heritage varieties of potato, to the all important bread and butter layering of a crisp sandwich. I’ll also be discussing just how many ways we Irish have of describing our potatoes (of which more below).
When I’m done with that, I’ll be wandering off to check out what the Dublin Urban Farm crew are doing with their roving Thank Potato exhibition in the Picnic’s Global Green area. Back in the Theatre of Food, on Sunday 31st at 12.30pm, I’ll be on stage again, in the knowledgeable – to say nothing of opinionated – company of Ernie Whalley, Leslie Williams and Mei Chin, participating in what should be a tummy rumbling discussion on Food in Literature, moderated by Caroline Byrne.
It is, apparently, a matter of some debate as to whether Eskimo languages really have an unusually large number of words for snow, but it is an oft-quoted example when discussing how a language may reflect the environment in which it has developed. We use language to describe what surrounds and affects us, so it seems only natural that the ways in which a language is used to describe a given entity can tell us something of its cultural significance. So it is, I think, with the Irish language and potatoes.
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