Last Saturday was, of course, time for my annual pilgrimage to Leitrim for the Organic Centre‘s Potato Day – which this year featured Dr. David Shaw of the Sárvari Research Trust and John Brennan of the Leitrim Organic Farmers and Growers Co-op. It’s an event which – though we may talk of blight and GM trials – always puts me in a positive potato mood (which, sadly, is more than can be said of the news reported by Suzanne Campbell earlier that same day on RTE Radio One’s Countrywide program, that prices paid to Irish potato farmers this year have gone through the floor, with many facing substantial losses).
On the upside for the state of spuds in Ireland, though, it gave me immense pleasure last Wednesday to see the heroic efforts of Dave Langford and Dermot Carey in building and preserving a collection of 225+ varieties of potato acknowledged with an award from the Irish Food Writers’ Guild (IFWG). It was presented as part of the Guild’s annual food awards, which are based on nominations and voting by members of the Guild (of which I am honoured to be a card-carrying member, so I might, eh, have had some part to play in singing certain potatoey praises). Herewith a little history on what the pair have done, and all for the love of spuds.
Dave – the self-styled and ebullient collector of rare, old and unusual potatoes – first started spud collecting more than 30 years ago while living in Scotland. He developed the collection, growing tubers of each variety in his back garden year on year, and amassed both an encyclopedic knowledge of the potato and a considerable collection of potato paraphernalia (his enthusiasm for the spud is positively infectious, as anyone who has ever met him will tell you). He also took to potato breeding and has bred several varieties of his own – each, appropriately enough, called Dave – which are included in the collection (and were included in my own (far more modest) backyard collection of spuds last year). Among other things, he was a member of the U.N. ad-hoc steering committee for the International Year of the Potato in 2008 and featured in Georgia Pellegrini’s 2010 book, Food Heroes.
Around seven or eight years ago, Dave crossed paths with Dermot Carey, then head gardener at Lissadell Estate and a hugely experienced organic vegetable grower. Dermot expressed an interest in growing potatoes from the collection, especially those of particular Irish interest, at Lissadell – which itself had a long history of potato-growing – and by 2008, the U.N. International Year of the Potato, up to 180 varieties from the collection could be seen growing in Lissadell’s large Victorian walled garden (which at that time was open to the public – I visited there with Dave and Dermot in 2009).
In 2010, Dave Langford and Lissadell received a Euro-Toques award for their work in preserving and reviving many traditional varieties of potatoes, including rare and heritage potatoes. The Langford/Lissadell Collection, as it became known, stands as the largest private collection of potato varieties in Ireland, with varieties ranging from Irish Apple, which dates from 1768 to the Lumper – the most commonly grown variety at the time of the Famine in the 1840s – and to more recently developed varieties. It was Lumper seed sourced from Dave’s collection that became the starting point for what has now become the first commercially grown crop of Lumper potatoes in modern times, launched in 2013 by Michael McKillop of Glens of Antrim Potatoes (and subsequently sampled, several times, by me).
The collection has been grown and managed by Dave and Dermot on an entirely voluntary basis – though Dave will tell you that he has now retired and “only has 150 varieties growing in his back garden.” The potatoes also form the core of a touring educational exhibition – Dermot and Dave have displayed the collection and given talks on the versatility and diversity of potatoes to gardening clubs, cookery schools and at various horticultural events, including Bord Bia’s Bloom in the Park, and it generates a wealth of interest wherever it goes. The collection is also a regular feature at the annual Organic Centre Potato Day, and despite his recent ill health, it was a joy to see Dave there again this very weekend, along with Dermot and a selection of their spuds (one or two of which may have been slipped to me for Spud-Off purposes, but more of that another time…).
Though the collection as a whole continued to be grown at Lissadell for a number of years after the estate was closed to the public, the fact is that it has been without a permanent, public home. Some of the collection has been grown in the walled garden of Harry’s Restaurant in Inishowen, with which Dermot has been involved for the past number of years, and in 2013, with the support of Pádraig Óg Gallagher, 160 varieties from the collection were grown for use by Gallagher’s Boxty House on the rooftop site of the Dublin Urban Farm. This year, the good news as announced by Dermot at the IFWG awards on Wednesday, is that the collection will find a new home in chef Richard Corrigan’s newly acquired estate in Virginia, Co. Cavan, of which Dermot will be estate manager and head vegetable honcho. In time, some of the potatoes from the collection, so long and carefully tended, may even find their way onto the plates of diners at Richard Corrigan’s London restaurants. Hopefully, too, a way will be found to make the collection accessible to the public as it grows – it, and the efforts of those who have maintained it, merits no less.