It’s a slippery slope, this ol’ Spud-Sunday-On-A-Monday business. Still, owing to the fact that yesterday (Sunday) was, in fact, an actual, real, live Spud Sunday, spent travelling to and from Rossinver, Co. Leitrim to the Organic Centre’s annual Potato Day (of which more anon), you will have to excuse the fact that this little piece of Sunday writing has, once again, stretched into the beginning of another week.
“Blight? Do we still have that?” someone asked.
The topic of conversation (as if you needed to ask) was spuds. Not just any old spuds, though, but Lumpers, the so-called Famine potato. It was the variety most widely grown in Ireland at the time of the Great Famine in 1845 – a wet, nasty, knobbly old potato, so we were told, but one which produced high yields in poor soil and which succumbed disastrously to the then newly arrived scourge of blight. The rest, as they say, is history – a history that has been coded into the very DNA of Irish being.
Blight, though, is far from being a thing of the past. It’s an ever-present and increasingly virulent threat to potato crops in the Irish climate, one that can cause commercial growers to spray their potato fields as many as 20 times during the growing season and which, over the years, has been the focus of a great deal of research – research which has been applied by breeders using both conventional and GM-based techniques in the quest for that holy potato grail: a plant with high levels of inherent blight resistance but with tubers that still taste good enough to eat. What, then, would possess a modern-day potato grower to spend seven years cultivating a commercial crop of Lumpers – blighty old potatoes, and ones with a back-story that, too, is so heavily blighted?
For the grower in question, Michael McKillop of Glens of Antrim Potatoes, it comes down, first and foremost, to being fanatical about the spud (a state with which I can utterly sympathise). Having come across some Lumper potatoes at a potato day in Crawfordsburn, simple curiosity started Michael on a road which, some seven years later, has lead to the sight of Lumpers sitting pretty on the shelves of Mark’s & Spencer’s stores around the country, where they will remain on sale for the next three weeks or so.
As Michael told me when I met him at a Lumper-filled lunch at Gallagher’s Boxty House last Thursday, “I want people to be able to taste a bit of history.” More to the point – and confirming what I had heard previously from potato collector extraordinaire Dave Langford – it’s a taste that’s actually not bad at all (to be precise, Dave had told me that, in a dry year, Lumpers were quite alright, but in a wet year, they were awful). In any case, the Lumpers I sampled had a decent flavour and a texture that tended towards the waxy end of the scale, while the mere fact of their availability is a story that has piqued people’s curiosity no end. With coverage including a front page article in the Irish Times last week, as well as a piece on RTE’s Six One news, this, undoubtedly, is the best press the Lumper has ever had.
At yesterday’s annual Potato Day at the Organic Centre in Co. Leitrim, however, there was plenty of skepticism about the sale of the newly resurrected Lumpers, from those who felt that it was only so much marketing hype (though harvested last September, the decision to release the Lumpers in the run up to St. Patrick’s Day was, one expects, intended to maximise the marketing impact). The fact is that, were it not for its rather particular historical baggage, it’s a potato that few would bother to grow and even fewer would bother to sell – there are other varieties that make for better eating and, in an ideal world, we’d also be looking to naturally blight resistant varieties whose cultivation is much more environmentally sustainable.
Skepticism notwithstanding, there was no escaping the fact that those in attendance at Potato Day were as curious as anyone to give the Lumper a try. Suspecting as much, I had brought some along, which we boiled up and handed out. The reaction was largely positive, with around 60% of the assembled audience rating what they had eaten as good to very good. Whether that taster was enough to prompt people to seek them out for themselves remains to be seen.
As I was leaving, I asked a couple of older, seasoned potato folk what they had thought of the Lumpers. While they agreed that what they had tasted was “grand” (in that very Irish sense, meaning fine, as opposed to spectacular), without any great flouriness to recommend them, these gents weren’t going to be rushing out to buy Lumpers anytime soon. “Put it this way,” said one, “I wouldn’t queue for them.” They would also, no doubt, have appreciated Martyn Turner’s cartoon in last Saturday’s Irish Times, whose text read as follows:
The ‘Lumper’: The Potato that failed in the Famine. Try one (or, for real authenticity, don’t try one).