So, having spent the last few (admittedly sporadic) posts waxing lyrical on the spuds of Prince Edward Island – a subject with which, I must admit, I’m not quite done yet – it has finally come time to shift focus closer to home – namely to Stradbally in Co. Laois, which plays host to the Electric Picnic this weekend.
Though music may be the big draw for the festival, wander down to the Mindfield area and you’ll find the Theatre of Food, with a diverse program of talks, demos, tastes and debates. And – for those Picnic enthusiasts who actually manage to arrive and get set up by that time – you can catch me (yes, me) opening the weekend’s Theatre of Food proceedings on Friday 29th at 4.30pm with my own little Theatre of Spud, a talk MC’ed by food writer Aoife Carrigy.
I’ll be looking at the place – or places, even – that the potato occupies in Irish food culture, from your Mammy’s boiled spuds, to the devotion that inspires a collection of 200+ heritage varieties of potato, to the all important bread and butter layering of a crisp sandwich. I’ll also be discussing just how many ways we Irish have of describing our potatoes (of which more below).
When I’m done with that, I’ll be wandering off to check out what the Dublin Urban Farm crew are doing with their roving Thank Potato exhibition in the Picnic’s Global Green area. Back in the Theatre of Food, on Sunday 31st at 12.30pm, I’ll be on stage again, in the knowledgeable – to say nothing of opinionated – company of Ernie Whalley, Leslie Williams and Mei Chin, participating in what should be a tummy rumbling discussion on Food in Literature, moderated by Caroline Byrne.
It is, apparently, a matter of some debate as to whether Eskimo languages really have an unusually large number of words for snow, but it is an oft-quoted example when discussing how a language may reflect the environment in which it has developed. We use language to describe what surrounds and affects us, so it seems only natural that the ways in which a language is used to describe a given entity can tell us something of its cultural significance. So it is, I think, with the Irish language and potatoes.
When I started pulling together Irish words and descriptive phrases relating to the potato, I found, on a preliminary trawl, over 50 easily enough (which is least partly a reflection of the fact that there are a great many adjectives that can be applied to various forms of potato in any language). Largely based on two Irish-English dictionaries – Ó Dónaill and Dineen – plus a bit of local knowledge, here is some of what caught my eye.
The common word for potato in Irish is práta (pl. prátaí), though in the West of Ireland, fata (pl. fataí) is used, while an early way of referring to the potato was An Spáinneach (meaning the Spaniard, and which is now usually translated to mean sweet potato). It reflects the theory that potatoes may have come to these shores by way of the Spanish Armada, and it was certainly the Spaniards who were responsible for introducing them into Europe in the late 16th century.
The practice, in times gone by, was for part of the potato crop to be stored over winter for seed and, in spring, the eyes of the stored tubers, which would develop into new plants, were cut out, and the rest used for animal feed. Several Irish words – sciollán, sceallán, scoilteán, scoilteog – refer to the part of the potato cut out for seed, while sciollóg or langán refers to the discarded portion. Caochán práta refers to an eyeless (or literally, blind) potato, while cailleach phráta describes a shrivelled or old seed potato (the same word, cailleach, is used to refer to an old hag). Falcaire also refers to an old or spent seed potato while bunchineál prátaí (literally, bottom species) are oldish, middling potatoes, not quite spent just yet.
There are numerous ways in the Irish language to denote a potato’s size. Sizable specimens include práta garbh, a large, lumpy potato, gillín práta, a fine, fat potato, and peil, the same word as used for football. Póiríní are small potatoes, like pebbles, as are both creacháin and sceidíní prátaí. Luspairt phrátaí and scaillúin prátaí both refer to small, worthless potatoes, while broc prátaí means small, discarded potatoes. Dradairníní prátaí are even smaller again and also lacking in usefulness. The smallest of all are likened to paidríní or rosary beads: “Bhí na prátaí ina bpaidríní ar na gais” – the potatoes were like (rosary) beads on the stalks.
The faults of a potato can also be many. Práta préacháin (literally, potato of the crow) is a crow-pecked potato while práta piartach is a worm-eaten one. Screamhachóirí prátaí are scabby, whilst a práta gréine (literally ‘potato of the sun’) has greened due to exposure to the sun. The práta fabhtach is hollow at its core, whilst sliomach describes that worst of offenders, a potato that is soft and soggy (and which may also be described as bogáin phrátaí (literally, soft potatoes)), while prátaí fliucha are wet and prátaí uisciula are watery. Tellingly, prátaí dubh (literally, black potatoes) are those that have been blighted.
The many ways in which potatoes can be cooked of course leads to many words to describe same, from roasties to mash to chips. There are several words – luathóg, bruthóg, bruithneog – to describe the common practice in times past of cooking a batch of potatoes in embers or ashes, generally those of a peat fire. Reflecting the Irish penchant for floury potatoes – prátaí plúrach – the language also has several ways of describing potatoes that have burst their jackets, including prátaí gáiriteacha (literally, smiling or laughing potatoes) and prátaí spréite (potatoes that spread or sprawl).
In some cases, these words tell us something about the ways in which potatoes were cooked when there was little else but potatoes to eat. Gealach phráta (literally, the moon of the potato) refers to the old practice of parboiling potatoes such that they were left with a small, hard centre. The outer parts would be digested easily, but swallowing the undercooked centres lead to a later, second digestion, which kept you going as you worked in the fields – hard potatoes for hard times.