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).
Ah spud, the notoriety of the fabled disastrous spud will I suppose give a bit of publicity to the grower. Any publicity even bad is a good thing. Me I’ll have a good PEI with a hunk of butter thank you.
Cheers and enjoy the Holiday,
It has generated a lot of publicity Brian, and all generally good – it has curiosity value, that’s for sure, and anything that can be labelled heritage is a seller these days (at least in the case of the Lumper, we really are talking heritage – a very particular and not always pleasant one at that).
I do admire Michael McKillop for what he’s done – good on him – though I wonder how sustainable a business it will be for him year on year. I guess there will be enough interest from the broader ex-pat community to be able to sell a goodly amount of Lumpers both here and abroad around this St. Patrick’s time of year. I’ll watch progress with interest.
Meanwhile, enjoy those Prince Edward Is. spuds!
Yes, I can vouch for Aoife (Daily Spud) Cox’s alibi, and what a bright spark she was to think of bringing the newly re-branded ‘Lumper’ to the Organic Centre’s Potato Day for tasting!
I was struck by how receptive the audience was to experimentation, and when so many of the seasoned potato enthusiasts in the room found this controversial spud ‘not bad,’ I felt like kicking myself! Why hadn’t I brought some blight resistant varieties to toss into the pot? But there’s another Potato Day (Sonairte, March 23rd) and another chance for that spud tasting show down.
Better polish up those Blue Danubes!
See my thoughts on the celebration of the Lumper here: http://desireland.ie/great-famine-spud-returns-after-almost-170-years/
Thanks for your excellent company on the trip to Leitrim Kaethe and, yes, I think a Lumper vs. Blue Danube tasting at the Sonairte Potato Day on March 23rd sounds like a plan. Will have to get some more Lumpers for the occasion – have given away my supply as samples to various parties – am keen for the curious out there to give them a whirl.
Ok, that Martyn Turner quote made me laugh. Good article and yes, will have to see about getting my mitts on some lumpers…hmmm, now will I have one lumper or two in my tea …
Ha – tea and Lumpers – better watch out for that Rufus, it could catch on :D
Hi Aoife, In retrospect any heirloom variety resurrected by a hard working farmer deserves respect.
Cheers, and HSPD,
Indeed so Brian, much respect for that in any case, whatever else you might say about it. And I hope you’re anticipating a happy St. Patrick’s Day too.
If I were growing Lumpers for a taste test I wouldn’t harvest in September. When I grew them a few years back they weren’t fully mature in my conditions until well into October – they were still growing until then. And interestingly they were one of the last varieties (this was back pre-Sarpo) to come down with blight. They’d have been pretty high on the resistance scale if it hadn’t been for that late maturity problem which meant they got blight in warm wet weather in September. But I guess to sell in M&S you need to harvest early because they tripled in size over the last few weeks and I can’t see Marks and Sparks customers buying the giant potatoes that I grew. But the late harvest ones were much dryer in texture and better (to my taste) in flavour. Best steamed.
Sorry I can’t make it to Sonairte – from what I’m hearing it will be a great day out. Enjoy!
Hi Kathy – I do believe that it was, indeed, a deliberate choice to harvest early and at a smaller size rather than let the tubers get to less M&S-friendly proportions – certainly any of the tubers I saw were on the small side. It also makes sense to me that they’d be drier if left in the ground longer, but with the added blight risks of course. Interesting observations about their resistance too. Sorry to hear you can’t make the day out at Sonairte – sounds like it will be an interesting one alright.