It was the Markies that caught my eye.
Though there were six other varieties of potato, freshly dug and arrayed for sale at last Saturday’s potato-themed market at Kilruddery House and Gardens near Bray, Co. Wicklow, I was intrigued by these large, clay-covered Markies and wasn’t shy about getting an introduction (always keen to meet new and interesting potatoes, me). It seemed as if Marquis might perhaps be a better name for them, as these were potatoes of a noble size.
A Dutch-bred variety, they, along with the rest of the potatoes there, had been grown by Wicklow-based farmer, John Swaby-Miller. John informed me that Markies had become a much favoured option for chips and I could see why: their large size and long oval shape would make for good chip size, while their reportedly very low sugar levels would result in that sought-after pale golden colour when fried. Though classed as a dry potato, there is, as I discovered later that evening in baked potato form, a little creaminess of texture and good flavour too. If there was a competitor that could square up to Maris Piper in the chip stakes – Maris Piper being long the favoured choice of the fish and chips trade on these islands – then this spud, which was introduced to the UK in 2000, might just be it.
The Markies website (though admittedly biased in this regard) tells you that not only is feedback from the chip trade good but that growers like the potato too, as it can be grown in a wider variety of field types than Maris Piper. It sums things up thus: “Move over Maris, there’s a new chip on the block.” The message for the rest of us, meanwhile, may simply be that varieties do matter – a potato is never just a potato, nor a chip just a chip.
Markies potatoes, as grown by John Swaby-Miller.
You’ll find John’s produce at the recently established Saturday farmers’ market at the Tap Café on the N11 in Wicklow and you’ll find his many different potatoes growing right across the road from there.
And yet, and yet…
If spuds could speak, what would they say?
Would they surprise (most of) us and paraphrase Muhammad Ali thus: “It’s hard to be humble, when you’re as great as we are.” Swap the boxing ring for the vegetable box and potatoes – like Ali – might just be greatest thing you could hope to find there. Really. A heavyweight amongst food crops, the potato is the world’s most widely grown vegetable; it has been a feeder of nations – not least our own – and is a champion performer in the kitchen, where (if you’re anything like me) you may find it hard but to admire its great range of culinary moves.
And yet humble is the word we most often reach for when we feel the need to attach an adjective to the potato. It’s not that it’s entirely inaccurate as descriptions go – potatoes, with their unshowy, clay-covered appearance, have, throughout their history, often been viewed as a lowly food of the poor – but the fact is that there are a great many other ways in which to characterise our national tuber.
I’ll grant that banning the use of the word ‘humble’ in reference to potatoes might be somewhat extreme (not to mention impossible), but descriptors like mighty, noble, beautiful even – these we might well add to the humble mix, as indeed the new Boxty House logo suggests.
And nowhere will you find greater eloquence in describing matters of the potato than in the work of the poet Seamus Heaney, who passed away earlier this week. He had an immense talent for elevating the ordinary with his words, and poems such as ‘At a Potato Digging‘ are ones by which both we – and spuds – are truly humbled.