Nugget of edible gold: a fine Wicklow spud, straight from the ground
“It’s like panning for gold, except you can eat what you find,” said Laura, and there spoke the voice of a true potato enthusiast.
We were discussing whether we might actually get to dig some potatoes of our own as we – a group of assorted food media types – piled onto a bus headed for Ballynerrin Farm, run by brothers John and Paul Brady in Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow. It was an outing organised by Bord Bia in advance of the fast approaching National Potato Day (next Friday, August 23rd, a date I might possibly have mentioned once or twice before) and the Brady brothers were, according to Bord Bia’s Lorcan Bourke, growers of some of the finest early potatoes in the Wicklow area. The farm visit would be followed by a hands on cookery class with Catherine Fulvio at Ballyknocken Cookery School, where the menu, inevitably, would be all about the spud.
As it turns out, the Bradys had a machine and helpers to do the potato digging for us,
while the slopes of the Sugar Loaf provided a picturesque backdrop
In the end, we were not called upon to do any physical digging at the Bradys’ farm, but we did do a little bit of digging into the world of new potatoes.
New potatoes are the fresh-faced debutantes of the potato world, the much anticipated heralds of each new potato season. They are the earlies – those varieties which have the shortest maturing periods and are first to be lifted each summer (for the Bradys, these include first earlies like Home Guard and Premier – typically ready to harvest early in June – followed by British Queen, a so-called second early variety). They are thin-skinned, with that fresh-from-the-ground flavour. They are, to redefine a phrase, the great unwashed – even in a supermarket, you should expect to find some dirt clinging to them. This is not a trick to make the consumer pay for unwanted clay but is down to the fact that, unlike later-maturing, thicker-skinned maincrop varieties, such as Rooster, they cannot stand up to being washed before sale. Neither do typical Irish earlies respond well to being cooked for any longer than absolutely necessary – gentle boiling or steaming until just fork tender, with a little bit of time to steam off, after which they need nothing more than a dab of soon-to-be-melted butter.
They also have a somewhat ephemeral quality: the very earliest of the new season potatoes, with the thinnest of skins, lack the longer term keeping abilities of sturdier maincrop specimens and should be acquired and enjoyed in short order thereafter (trust me, there will be plenty of time to have not-so-new Roosters later in the year). The skins of the early potatoes will get thicker as the season progresses, though they will still be very light-sensitive and prone to greening; like any potatoes, they will appreciate being kept somewhere cool and dark (which leads me to wag my finger at retailers big and small, who have a dreadful habit of displaying potatoes in the open under shop lights; this does no potato any good at all).
Early potatoes – Queens in this case – from the Bradys’ Ballynerrin farm, all bagged and ready to go
Perfectly edible potatoes – early and otherwise – that don’t meet EU or supermarket requirements don’t make the grade for sale – one of the sad facts of commercial potato farming life. In the Bradys’ case, these outcasts will be gathered and used to feed cattle on their farm.
Sadly, for all of their loveliness, John Brady says that it has been harder and harder to get new season early potatoes into supermarkets because of their shorter shelf life, while marketers and retailers, for their part, play fast and loose with the term new potato: potatoes labelled as new season may not be of an early variety or may not even be that new. Just recently in the UK, the Potato Council issued guidelines on what should and should not be labelled as new potatoes following an investigation by South Ayrshire Council in Scotland which found that many of the big supermarket chains were selling potatoes labelled as new, but which had been harvested four or five months previously (so when a new potato makes an appearance in January, remember that, unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, it’s probably not that new at all).
Sarpo Axona potatoes in the kitchen garden at Ballyknocken
Having been duly enlightened as to the some of the realities of commercial potato growing, we turned our attention to the important follow-on activities of cooking our spuds and eating them in the delightful surrounds of Ballyknocken House and Cookery School, where the idea – courtesy of recipes developed by Catherine Fulvio – was to highlight less traditional but easily accessible ways of preparing potatoes (a mission with which regular readers here may be somewhat familiar). So we chopped and sliced and grilled and baked and – because all of that food wasn’t going to eat itself – we feasted on everything spud, from a delightful potato, kale and cannellini bean soup, to patatas bravas served with roast cod, and to the grilled potato skewers you’ll find below. And, as if to demonstrate that you can never have too many spuds, I then went home and had some of those early potatoes, dressed with butter. I could truly think of nothing better.
Catherine Fulvio demonstrates one of many simple spud ideas – a potato tart with puff pastry base, homemade tomato sauce, some sliced, cooked potato and caramelised onion
A feast of spuds for lunch at Ballyknocken, with soups, bakes, pies, tarts and more
Grilled Potato Skewers
This is just one of the recipes that we made at our Ballyknocken Cookery School session with Catherine Fulvio. At its heart, this is just a simple idea: baby potatoes – marinated first in a mix of oregano, paprika, lemon juice and rapeseed oil – then threaded onto skewers with peppers and shallots, chargrilled and finished with a chive, dill and pinenut dressing.
Everything about this is flexible: change the herbs and spices in the marinade or dressing according to what you have and like; vary the mix of vegetables on the skewer and/or add some strips of chicken. Even as we were making this at our cookery class, we were encouraged to forage about in the kitchen garden at Ballyknocken and select from the herbs or vegetables we found there, and I suspect that no dish made that day was done entirely according to the recipe, which is cooking as it should be.
- Makes around 8 skewers & takes approx. 1 hour to prep + 5 minutes to grill
For the skewers:
- approx. 24 baby potatoes, such as Maris Peer (or use 4 or so larger, waxy potatoes)
- 2 red peppers, deseeded and chopped into approx 2cm pieces
- 8 small shallots, peeled and cut in half
For the marinade:
- 3 tblsp rapeseed oil
- juice of 1 lemon
- 2 tsp fresh oregano, finely chopped
- 1 tsp paprika
For the chive dressing:
- 60 ml rapeseed oil
- 2 tblsp toasted pine nuts
- 2 tblsp chives, chopped
- 1 tblsp dill, chopped
- coarse salt, to taste
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- chargrilled lemon slices (optional)
You’ll also need:
- 8 wooden skewers plus a food processor or blender for blending the chive oil
- Soak the wooden skewers in cold water for at least one hour.
- Wash the potatoes and, leaving them unpeeled, steam until just tender (10 minutes or so, depending on size, larger potatoes will (obviously) need longer). If using larger potatoes, cut into approx. 2cm chunks once cooked.
- Whisk together the rapeseed oil, lemon juice, oregano and paprika for the marinade. Pour half of the marinade over the still-warm potatoes and set aside for about 30 minutes.
- Using a food processor or blender, blend together the rapeseed oil, toasted pine nuts, chives and dill for the chive oil. Add salt and black pepper to taste and set aside.
- Preheat your BBQ or outdoor grill if using. Alternatively, preheat a chargrill pan on your stovetop or cook under the grill element of your oven or simply roast in a hot oven (preheated to 200C).
- Thread the potatoes, red peppers and shallots onto the skewers and brush with the remainder of your marinade.
- Chargrill the skewers on your BBQ, grill pan or indoor grill for 3-4 minutes or until cooked and lightly charred. Alternatively, roast in a hot oven for about 5-10 minutes.
- To serve, spoon over the chive oil and serve with chargrilled lemon slices.
- You can certainly vary the herbs here according to what you have and like e.g. replace the oregano with rosemary, the dill with fennel, the paprika with some smoked paprika etc. and/or thread some bay leaves onto the skewers; add more or different vegetables to the mix, such as courgettes, perhaps, and Catherine also suggests that you could thread the skewers with thin strips of chicken if that takes your fancy.