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.
Though tremendously well regarded as a breeder by eminent botanists of the time – and his contributions were honoured by way of an OBE in 1969 – John Clarke was not especially well known, nor his works appreciated, in his native Antrim. A book written by fellow Antrim native, Maurice McHenry – who, as a boy, had met Clarke, and whom it was my pleasure to meet this week at Bloom – aims to address that fact.
Though I was aware of Clarke’s work, I have added to both my understanding and appreciation of it with Mr. McHenry’s slim but important volume, which describes Clarke’s family background and contributions to the potato world (which, in modern day terms, where the successful breeding and certification of a new commercial variety can take from 10 to 15 years and can run into a cost of hundreds of thousands, if not more, are substantial).
Variety – as far as potatoes were concerned – was, in fact, a bit of a theme at Bloom this year, where the potato.ie display, presided over by Lorcan Bourke of Bord Bia, aimed to both remind and re-educate visitors about the fact that there is more to the potato than the Rooster (which accounts for around 60% of the potatoes grown here now). Though I am probably responsible for the consumption of a good deal of that 60% myself – the Rooster’s strength is, after all, as a good all-rounder – it’s never any harm to recall that different potatoes are good for different things and those Maris Pipers and their mighty chips are the classic case in point.
And variety at Bloom wasn’t restricted to potatoes themselves. For those who enjoy their potatoes thinly sliced and crisply fried, there were several new flavours of same to try in the artisan food market. The event was the first outing for a new and pleasantly smoky hickory barbecue flavour from O’Donnells (and also for a second new variety which I managed to miss), while samples at the Keogh’s stand included their latest addition, crisps with a pinch of Irish Atlantic sea salt. Both are fine additions to the Irish crisp landscape and, though I have no idea how John Clarke felt about crisps (Mr. McHenry’s book being silent on that point), they have each resulted from farmers demonstrating a spirit of potato innovation of which, I imagine, Mr. Clarke would have approved.