The Daily Spud

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Tag: potato blight (page 1 of 2)

Spud Sunday: The Blighty Spud

I do apologise. This is long and – for a spud sunday – it is somewhat late, but the gnarliness of the subject matter made it so. Spuds can get quite weighty at times, but I do love ’em all the same.

1. Three large bottles of Bulmers cider.
2. One 12-pack of Tayto crisps.
3. One box of Rennie’s indigestion tablets.

That’s what the ladies ahead of me at the Centra supermarket counter were buying around teatime on a Saturday evening. I presumed – and who amongst us can resist passing judgement on our neighbours’ shopping baskets – that it was the anticipated ingestion of items one and two that (hic!) had lead to the need for item three. Welcome to a little slice of modern Irish eating.

GIY Gathering

I was on my way home from a day spent at the GIY Gathering in Waterford – the 5th annual conference of the ever expanding Grow It Yourself movement – and was trying to decide what I made of the day, including the closing panel debate which dealt with the rather weighty question of whether Ireland needs GM potatoes (a subject worthy of carrying its own public health warning: this may hurt your head and you may find certain aspects hard to swallow and/or digest). I eyed up the Rennie’s but decided that it was going to take something a bit stronger to cope with the assimilation of it all.

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Spud Sunday: Return Of The Lumper

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?

Irish Lumpers

Whod’a thunk it: Irish Lumpers prettily packaged and up for sale

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.

Boiled Lumper Potatoes

Boiled Lumper Potatoes at Gallagher’s Boxty House

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.

Plates of Lumpers

Serving up Lumpers at the Organic Centre’s annual Potato Day

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).

Spud Sunday: Fight Or Blight

Members of the Maquis in La Tresorerie

Members of the Maquis (French Resistance) in 1944 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

For some reason, I picture David Shaw, the energy behind the Welsh-based Sárvári Trust, in the beret-topped garb of a WW2 resistance fighter. In David’s case, however, the enemy (and one of Goliath proportions at that) is potato blight and his weapons of choice are the Sárpo line of potatoes, bred to have high levels of natural blight resistance.

Needless to remark, David was not actually beret-clad when I met him at last week’s Tastefest (though I daresay a beret would have suited him). What he did display, though, was a resistance fighter’s spirit and determination in the face of battle on two fronts, with the ever-adapting scourge of potato blight on the one hand and the struggle to keep the Sárvári Trust funded on the other. He was eager to hear about people’s experiences with Sárpo potatoes and to share his expansive knowledge of potato blight – amassed during some 40 years of study – with all who were willing to listen.

David Shaw at Tastefest

David Shaw of the Sárvári Reseach Trust: a bona fide blight resistance fighter

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