The Daily Spud

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Spud Sunday: A Potato By Any Other Name

I would hazard a guess – for those in Ireland and the UK at any rate – that there’s hardly a man, woman or child who has not, at some time, been touched by the life’s work of one John Clarke. Certainly, if you’ve ever savoured a bag of fat, golden, creamy-on-the-inside, vinegared-on-the-outside chip-shop chips, what you’ve eaten owes a certain debt to this unassuming man of Antrim.

To say that Mr. Clarke (1889-1980) was a potato breeder of note is somewhat of a understatement. Though he left school at the age of 12 and had no formal scientific or horticultural training, he was responsible for the development of 33 certified varieties of potato, most of which bear the prefix Ulster, and some of which were subsequently cross-bred to produce varieties very familiar to us: Maris Piper, long the potato of choice for the chipper, is a second generation (or F2) descendant of a John Clarke variety, Ulster Knight, and most of you will have eaten Maris Pipers, even if, at the time, their name was a mite less important than their role as a welcome source of soakage.

John Clarke, Potato Wizard

John Clarke, Potato Wizard by Maurice McHenry

Though tremendously well regarded as a breeder by eminent botanists of the time – and his contributions were honoured by way of an OBE in 1969 – John Clarke was not especially well known, nor his works appreciated, in his native Antrim. A book written by fellow Antrim native, Maurice McHenry – who, as a boy, had met Clarke, and whom it was my pleasure to meet this week at Bloom – aims to address that fact.

Though I was aware of Clarke’s work, I have added to both my understanding and appreciation of it with Mr. McHenry’s slim but important volume, which describes Clarke’s family background and contributions to the potato world (which, in modern day terms, where the successful breeding and certification of a new commercial variety can take from 10 to 15 years and can run into a cost of hundreds of thousands, if not more, are substantial).

Rooster potato

Rooster potato – the variety that, in Ireland, seems to rule them all

Variety – as far as potatoes were concerned – was, in fact, a bit of a theme at Bloom this year, where the potato.ie display, presided over by Lorcan Bourke of Bord Bia, aimed to both remind and re-educate visitors about the fact that there is more to the potato than the Rooster (which accounts for around 60% of the potatoes grown here now). Though I am probably responsible for the consumption of a good deal of that 60% myself – the Rooster’s strength is, after all, as a good all-rounder – it’s never any harm to recall that different potatoes are good for different things and those Maris Pipers and their mighty chips are the classic case in point.

Potato Varieties

Other varieties of potato grown in Ireland and worth more than a passing glance

And variety at Bloom wasn’t restricted to potatoes themselves. For those who enjoy their potatoes thinly sliced and crisply fried, there were several new flavours of same to try in the artisan food market. The event was the first outing for a new and pleasantly smoky hickory barbecue flavour from O’Donnells (and also for a second new variety which I managed to miss), while samples at the Keogh’s stand included their latest addition, crisps with a pinch of Irish Atlantic sea salt. Both are fine additions to the Irish crisp landscape and, though I have no idea how John Clarke felt about crisps (Mr. McHenry’s book being silent on that point), they have each resulted from farmers demonstrating a spirit of potato innovation of which, I imagine, Mr. Clarke would have approved.

O'Donnells Crisps Hickory Barbecue

O’Donnells Crisps, new Hickory Barbecue flavour

Keogh's Crisps with Irish Atlantic Sea Salt

Keogh’s Crisps with Irish Atlantic Sea Salt

8 Comments

  1. The Ulster Knight, I used to bite, lay dormant getting riper,

    It’s wondrous bloom and pollen plume, harvested like venom from a viper,

    The work went on, trials were spawn, The Knight it’s shield did bow,

    For in the field, it now does yield, The noble Maris Piper

  2. Daily Spud

    Monday, June 3, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Bravo Brian, you’re quite the bard I see!

  3. Rooster must be the best example of the value/power of advertising. Ronnie Bartlett has managed to sell a red potato with yellowish flesh and a highish dry matter to the English whom everyone knows only like white skins, white flesh and waxy texture. But it cost him several millions in the process, hiring Marcia Cross of Desperate Housewives for cute TV commercials (she has red hair afterall). And sea-salt? hmmm. Need a blind tasting here – rock vs sea? But it sounds good and sells! I had some expensive chili flavoured crisps the other day. Flavour nice but what were they made from? Wheat? Rice? Sorry to be such a party pooper this morning, Aoife. Good to hear about the book on John Clarke – must get one.

  4. Daily Spud

    Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    You’re not a party pooper at all David – always happy to hear your opinions on matters tuberous! As for marketing, so much of what we eat is driven by perception and spin – one wonders what our plates would look like without them (as for sea salt vs rock salt, well of course it depends on the salt – and would be happy to volunteer for blind tasting of same…)

    Re: John Clarke, the author, Maurice McHenry also tells me that there are plans afoot to incorporate a John Clarke / potato element into the Salmon & Whiskey festival in Bushmills, N.I., in late September. Will have more information anon.

  5. Sounds as if we need to plan a visit to inspect our seed field in Newtonards in late September. Keep us posted, Aoife.

  6. Daily Spud

    Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    Will do David. Dates, as far as I know, are Sept 20-22 but no specifics as yet. Will let you know when I know more.

  7. Sam Dennigan tells me that Rooster only sells while the adverts are actually running and sales plummet again when there isn’t a promotion. It was launched here on Glenroe, being dug by Miley’s dad and has never looked back.

  8. Daily Spud

    Thursday, June 6, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    Well holy God, as Miley would say! I didn’t know about the Glenroe connection Kathy, very interesting indeed – some very clever product positioning there by the sounds of it.

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