I will think of it hereafter as The Great Potato Standoff of 2013.
The white-haired gentleman had, in my absence, clutched one of my two packets of Lumpers and was peering somewhat demandingly in my direction.
“Well, are they for sale or aren’t they?” he said. It was more challenge than question. He repeated it several times.
Everyone, on the other hand, expects spuds on Paddy’s Day, but I’ll betcha nobody expects spudakopita (cue Python-esque diabolical laughter). You can get the low down on this potatoey St. Patrick’s Day version of spanakopita below (though there’s no need to restrict its making to one day of the year – remember that potatoes are for life, not just for Paddy’s Day).
What is special about St. Patrick’s Day when it comes to spuds, though, is that it was, and is, a traditional day for planting pototoes in Ireland. Kaethe Burt O’Dea of SPUDS.ie (who is quoted in today’s Washington Post piece on Ireland and the trialling of GM potatoes) wisely suggests that we might do well to reclaim this day as a National Potato Day and relegate the consumption of copious pints to a supporting role. I’ll plant to that.
Meanwhile, given the season that’s in it, I have found myself awash with samples of a spudly nature generously provided to me by assorted parties who know my taste in edibles only too well.
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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).
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 was very sad to hear of the untimely passing, the other day, of David Tiernan, one of life’s true gentlemen, and the maker of Glebe Brethan, one of Ireland’s finest farmhouse cheeses.
I interviewed David, who was in his mid 50s, a few months ago for a piece on Irish farmhouse cheese which appeared in the Sunday Times last December. He was warm, helpful and generous with his time, a dairy farmer first and foremost, whose life, for the last 38 years he said, had been, simply, ‘wake up and milk the cows.’ He had a real connection to the land and the food that came from it and, for three or so months during the summer, would, in addition to milking his Montbéliarde cows and working in the yard, make two 45kg wheels of glorious Comté-style raw milk cheese a day. He loved the pleasure that his cheese gave to others and – never short of an opinion on the issues facing farmers and small scale food producers – he was familiar to many in Irish food circles, not least when it came to opposing the proposed ban on the sale of raw milk here.
When asked in an interview published in the Irish Times last April to describe himself in six words, David said simply “just very happy to be alive.” Sadly, that is no longer the case and the Irish food landscape is all the poorer for it.
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Gourmet crisps, eh?
It was the first phrase I noticed when I picked up a packet of Bill & Mick’s crisps – or, to give them their official mouthful of a title, Bill & Mick’s Real Irish Gourmet Hand Cooked Crisps – newcomers to the Irish crisps scene. Dedicated, as ever, to the spud-eating cause, I quickly exchanged my cash for said crisps and, in less time than it took to say their (admittedly rather long) name, I was at home with some real Irish gourmet hand cooked crisps in tow. In what, I suspect, was less time than that again, the packets of same were emptied and the contents well and truly dispatched.
And tint your potatoes blue or rose or green! How do you know that you will not like them?MFK Fisher, from the essay “Shell-shock and Richard the Third” in Serve it Forth
It was a mildly curious coincidence that, in the week where bones found in an English car park were confirmed to be those of long-dead monarch, Richard III, I found myself reading an essay by MFK Fisher which referenced that self-same, newly identified king.
In the essay, written some 75 years or so ago, the author urges her readers to avoid indifference and monotony in their eating – as laudable an endeavour then as now. “Baked potatoes,” she says, “no matter how hot and flaky, become almost nauseating the seven-hundredth time they are served pinched open, with paprika and butter on the scar.” Well, quite so. Ardent eater of potatoes though I am, such relentless baked potato-ism might even cause me to recoil (and that’s saying something).
We should instead, she advises, forsake the mundane, and bring excitement and imagination to the dishes we create, as innovators now, and in centuries past, have done. She cites, among others, fanciful creations like the half capon, half pig cockentrice, described in 15th Century manuscripts, and which may well have graced the table of the now decidedly skeletal Richard III. It’s a somewhat extreme example and (unless you’re Heston Blumenthal, that is), you’re unlikely to be recreating such a thing in the comfort of your own kitchen anytime soon. That doesn’t mean to say that you can’t mix it up a little every now and then, though. Perhaps you will, as she suggests, tint your potatoes blue or rose or green. How do you know that you will not like them? How indeed.
Potato Pinwheels with Goats Cheese and Hazelnuts
So here, then, is something a little different to do with your potatoes. They may not be tinted blue or rose or green, but these potato pinwheels will do nicely for a change nonetheless.
It started simply thus: I had cauliflower in my fridge and potatoes on my mind.
My ponderings on what to make using said combination lead me first in the direction of this yellow, coconut-milky curry which, in turn, drew me to an old Thai-style favourite. The ever-present desire – nay, duty – to mix things up, potato-wise, took those thoughts and translated them into a bake, layered with potatoes and cauliflower and a coconut-milky sauce. And it was good, maybe very good, even. But my tastebuds told me that, while the cauliflower was fine, some aubergine would be even better. I, naturally, took my tastebuds’ advice.
Potato and Aubergine Bake
So here it is then, the net result of my potatoey thought processes – not a cauliflower to be seen but, nonetheless, with cauliflower to thank for the initial inspiration.