If we hadn’t missed the turn, we’d have missed the cabbages.
As it was, we drove past our intended destination, through the gently undulating Comber countryside and spied the fine sweep of dark green and leafy heads, awaiting harvest in the fields. We saw them again as we figured our way back down the road to the turn for Mash Direct, an entirely modest roadside sign belying the size of the enterprise beyond.
Here I was, then, in Comber, Co. Down – a place well known for its early potatoes – invited to see, at first hand, the operations at Mash Direct, a company established nine years ago by Martin and Tracy Hamilton, as a means of addressing the increasingly small returns they were getting from their family potato farm. They started by turning their spuds into champ – a traditional Irish mash with spring onions and butter – and selling it at market stalls. They have since expanded considerably, with over 100 employees now producing a range of some 30+ mostly potato-based prepared vegetable products, which are sold in Ireland, the UK and even as far away as Dubai, while back at home, work will get underway shortly to double the size of the production space at their farm in Comber.
I have to admit that, along with my blogger standard issue camera and iPhone, I had packed a little bit of prejudice before leaving the house that morning. I’m not an off-the-shelf mash kind of girl and, in my mind, there was an almost automatic association of pre-packaged with highly processed. What I found at Mash Direct was pleasantly surprising: a great deal of thought – and engineering – has gone into ensuring that what is produced hereabouts is not just any old mash, but mash like you’d make at home (except in significantly larger quantities – think tonnes and truckloads instead of pounds and pots).
Vegetable varieties – whether grown on their own farm or sourced from other local farmers – are specifically chosen for their flavour and Mash Direct have developed bespoke steam ovens in which to cook them gently. Their ingredients lists are refreshingly short: their champ contains only potato, spring onions, milk, butter, salt and white pepper; their mashed carrot and parsnip contains carrot, parsnip, butter, salt and nothing else. Blast-chilling gives the prepared vegetables a shelf-life, once properly handled, of around 10 to 13 days without the need for preservatives. And those cabbages in the fields? When their day of reckoning comes, they will be harvested sometime after 5am, in the factory by around 7am and prepped, steamed, blast-chilled, packed and very possibly on a truck bound for shop shelves by 11am. Fresh, in other words. Very fresh indeed.
As a company, Mash Direct have been much awarded for their products, their management and their environmental sensitivity. And, as the best companies do, they innovate. One of their most recent product developments, mash pots – which provide healthy, mash-based meals for the food to go market – have, alongside Glenisk sugar-free kids yoghurts and Goatsbridge trout caviar, been nominated for an upcoming Irish Times innovation award. I can vouch for the fact that the mash pots taste good, because a day like this would not have been complete without a proper tasting session, wherein, in addition to several flavours of mash pot, I do believe I broke at least a personal record for most number of different types of potato on one plate at one time, including potato cakes, chilli baby bakes, champ, potato and leek bake, cauliflower cheese gratin and several types of croquette. And while I’m not about to give up cooking my own spuds anytime soon, I would happily have any or all of the above on my plate again – and that is the real proof of Mash Direct, very much in the eating.