I started reading Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine & Empire the other day. It is, as the title might suggest, epic in range, tracking the spread of key cuisines across the globe in what is a broad, sweeping history of cooking.
A dense, scholarly tome – think small fonts, few pictures, and reams of references – it’s not what you’d necessarily want to skim through over your morning cornflakes but, to be honest, its solidity and substance make a change from the day-to-day scatter of information delivered and consumed in tweets and sound bites. And despite ranging across countries far and centuries wide, it brought to mind something closer to home – a visit I made in December to Higgin’s Butchers in Sutton.
As I sat down to write this, I got a distinct feeling of déjà vu.
Sure enough, as I looked through my back catalogue, a post written this time two years ago features a white winter soup with potato and celeriac, and words about the kind of simple food we want to eat in the aftermath of the Christmas season. Yesterday, history repeated itself and I made a similar kind of soup for similar kinds of reasons. Not exactly the same – life never is, quite – but, nevertheless, it fulfilled the same, warming purpose.
So here it is, the first post of a brand new year. It’s lean and it’s mean, in line with the convention that dictates an end to seasonal silliness and a return to more subdued, slimline selves. Under normal circumstances, this entry would have been preceded by one of those big annual review type posts, bridging the gap between Christmas roastiness and January resolve, but the turn of the year brought a turn of events that dictated otherwise, so I will briefly summarise 2013 thus: I wrote, I spoke, I travelled, I judged, I cooked, I ate, I pickled, I fermented – and all in the name of the spud.
‘Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the ‘net,
They googled for roasties, the best they could get.
Which spud to choose, to avoid roastie blunders?
Roosters or Pinks, Maris or Wonders?
Goose fat or dripping? Oil or butter?
Who reigns supreme, in the smoke and the splutter?
And lo, there’s Heston, Jamie and crew,
All armed with advice on just what to do.
Parboil and ruffle, steam ’til they’re dry,
Then into the oven and roast ‘em on high.
Serve with the trimmings, the turkey and ham,
Piled onto the plate in a glorious cram.
Feast yourself silly, with roasties galore,
Crispy and Christmas and here once more.
You’ll forgive, I hope, the indulgence in a bit of cheesy seasonal rhyme. It marks this year’s edition of an event that has become almost as predictable as Christmas itself – the Daily Spud roastie post.
Be really suspicious of a good looking spud…
I knew, once Paul Rankin had uttered those words, that here was someone I could talk to in spud terms.
Scottish-born and Northern Irish-bred, Paul Rankin made a name for himself in the troubled Belfast of the ’80s and ’90s, scoring Northern Ireland’s first Michelin star in 1991 with Roscoff, the restaurant he ran with his then wife, Jeanne.
Cookery books, TV appearances – most recently in the series Paul and Nick’s Big Food Trip, with friend and fellow chef, Nick Nairn – and other restaurant interests followed over the years and, since 2002 Paul has, in partnership with Irwin’s Bakery, lent his name to the Rankin Selection, a range of Irish breads and other products which retail in Ireland and the U.K. (including potato farls, of which more anon). Last March, however, saw the end of an era, when Paul closed the doors of his only remaining restaurant, Cayenne, citing problems caused by the flags protests in Belfast.
Unsurprisingly, Paul has a lot to say about restaurants and Belfast and Irish food, and it was my pleasure, a number of weeks back, to chat with him about all of those things, and about Christmas too, and – inevitably – potatoes. He is, as I discovered, a man who is very particular about same.
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It can get a bit addictive, can’t it.
So observed one of my fellow potato pickers as the Wicklow light waned and vegetable grower John Swaby-Miller – a.k.a. Johnny English – turned the last row of potatoes at the end of crisp December day. For one Sunday only, our merry band of volunteers had donned wellies and gloves and had plucked and washed rows upon rows of newly unearthed Sarpo Axona potatoes. Now, muddy-kneed and rosy-cheeked, it was time to go home, each toting a 5kg hessian sack of said spuds.
These were the sacks into which the rest of the day’s harvest would be packed for sale in the run up to Christmas, to raise both funds for, and awareness of, SPUDS.ie, the voluntary community research group whose aim – by promoting the use of naturally blight-resistant potatoes, such as Sarpo Axona – is to demonstrate no less than the potential for sustainable agricultural practice in Ireland. SPUDS.ie founder, Kaethe Burt-O’Dea, also hopes to raise funds to support another run of her Crisps with a Conscience, made from potatoes of an unusual shape that are normally discarded. Those who buy these bags of Christmas spuds can be guaranteed some good seasonal eating and a lot of seasonal goodwill.
The fruits of our picking labours – packed in attractive 5kg hessian sacks – will be for sale from Dec 13 up until Christmas at the following Dublin locations:
Craft & Design Christmas Pop Up Shop at Block T, Smithfield, open Dec 12 – 15 & Dec 19 – 22 from 11:30am – 18:30pm, late opening Thursdays 20:00.
Dublin Flea and Block T Christmas Cracker, Smithfield, December 13-15
The Lilliput Stores Christmas Hamper Market at The Joinery in Arbour Hill from Dec 20 – Dec 23
What, do you suppose, is the collective noun most appropriately applied to a set of newly acquired cookbooks?
An anticipation perhaps, or an expectation – it is those things to begin with. As their numbers rise – and certainly once it approaches double digits – it becomes more of a saturation – perhaps even an impossibility – as you realise that their sheer numbers may defeat you.
I have been watching the pile of newly published and Irish-authored cookbooks grow steadily on my kitchen table, especially over the last month or two – Gill & Macmillan having been kind enough to send review copies of several recently published titles, added to a slew of acquisitions at book launches and elsewhere, many written by friends and fellow bloggers and writers – not to mention others that I have flicked through and (somehow) resisted acquiring. Here follows a run down for anyone in the mood to expand their own collection (though perhaps not all at once).
The description, in the Irish Beef Book, of the eye of the round, tells us that it is the shape of this cut that gives it its alternative designation – namely ‘salmon’ of beef. There is also a note about the champion Irish racehorse “said to have been named after the inevitable, unchanging main course choices offered to guests at functions held in Dublin’s Burlington Hotel.” It is perhaps no small irony, in the light of the horse meat scandal earlier this year, that ‘Beef or Salmon‘ was the name of that noted steed.
It was a mighty busy week last week and no mistake. Amongst the various goings on, yours truly featured in last Friday’s installment of Dublin City FM‘s Sodshow with Peter Donegan, to which you can listen back below (and, yes, the interview was recorded much earlier this year – at Sonairte‘s Potato Day – hence the springtime talk of potatoes chitting in my hallway).
Curiously enough, it was when I reemerged from the recording of said interview that I stumbled into what I later christened The Great Potato Standoff of 2013 – an incident which had everything to do with the feverish interest generated by the return of the Lumper potato last March. And, as I learned this week, those newly-resurrected Famine-era spuds are far from a flash in the pan…
Back in March of this year, Marks & Spencer Ireland announced a limited three week run of Lumpers, grown for them by Michael McKillop of Glens of Antrim Potatoes. It signalled the first time that the Lumper potato – which had been the mainstay of the Irish peasant farmer in the pre-Famine era, and which had succumbed in such devastating fashion to the onslaught of blight in 1845 – had been grown in any kind of significant quantity in Ireland in around 170 years.