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.
Irish woodland: beech trees abound but spuds, not so much
This weekend found me foraging about in the wilds of Co. Cavan (or perhaps the not-so-wilds, given that I was in the rather lovely surroundings of Farnham Estate). While my walk in the Cavan woods turned up all sorts of things (and I will report in full at a later date), potatoes were, unsurprisingly, not one of them. Though I am of a naturally optimistic bent when it comes to spuds (as you might, by now, have noticed), the truth is that there is very little chance of me (or anyone else) finding truly wild potatoes in this country – and the odd stray tuber that has escaped the harvest and sprouted anew doesn’t really count.
So runs a line from the song “The Great Potato Feud” by Pat Quinn of Inis Oírr, which describes a late night bar scene with much heated, and inebriated, debate on the matter of the best potato.
It is, as Rónadh Cox** pointed out in her article in the journal Gastronomica, “a very funny song… above all funny because the idea of a pack of Irishmen quarreling about potato varieties seems ridiculous – but not impossible.”
** I must declare some interest here – Rónadh is my cousin and writing about potatoes, it seems, a family preoccupation.
I was reminded of the song because I had the pleasure of meeting Darra Goldstein this week, Editor in Chief of the aforementioned Gastronomica, who was in Dublin at the DIT School of Culinary Arts & Food Technology to deliver the keynote address at the inaugural Dublin Gastronomy Symposium. It seems a terribly grand title – and it was in the nature of the event that the papers presented were necessarily academic and, at times, esoteric – but at its heart was a group of people, brought together by a committee chaired by Dr. Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, and whose interests, though diverse, centered on food – that which nourishes and enables us all to simply be.