It’s a very flirtatious carbohydrate.
Well now, with a statement like that, you may forget all notions of humble spud-hood. The description, by food historian Regina Sexton, of the potato as a flirty little number, luxuriating in the company of fats, absorbing and carrying their flavour, must surely resonate with anyone who has ever enjoyed crisp-then-creamy deep-fried chips, the golden crunch of goose-fatted roasties, the molten glory of buttery baked potatoes, the creamy ooze of a gratin Dauphinoise or even the odd bag of Tayto.
Regina – author, among other things, of A Little History of Irish Food – was just one of the speakers at an evening dedicated to all things potato at Liss Ard Estate during the recent Taste of West Cork food festival, and she made the comment as she described some of the earliest potato recipes found in Ireland. Though potatoes as prepared by the poor had few, if any, fats to flirt with, their culinary treatment was markedly different if you were wealthy, and some of the earliest known Irish potato recipes were for sugary, buttery potato pies and puddings prepared for the gentry in their big houses. The earliest Irish potato recipe that Regina has found is for just such a pie by Dorothy Parsons, from a 1666 recipe manuscript from Birr Castle. The pie, filled, among other things, with potatoes, rosewater, currents, raisins, orange peel, cinnamon, white wine, egg yolks and sugar, treats potatoes as more fruit than vegetable. It displays, Regina says, a classic medieval palate, with a mixture of sweet, savoury and spice all rolled in one and, as you can imagine, I’d be curious to try it. At least once, anyway.
In addition to Regina’s lyrical descriptions of how we prepared and ate potatoes in times past, the Liss Ard event featured presentations which ran the gamut from pre- and post-famine history with Éanna Ní Lamhna, to advances in modern potato science with Eoin Lettice and the observations of seed saver Madeline McKeever on organic growing and blight-resistant varieties. There were, in addition, tables heaving with locally made potato dishes (though sadly nothing quite like Dorothy Parson’s pie).