Spuds in the field: what a Spud Sunday is all about
It can get a bit addictive, can’t it.
So observed one of my fellow potato pickers as the Wicklow light waned and vegetable grower John Swaby-Miller – a.k.a. Johnny English – turned the last row of potatoes at the end of crisp December day. For one Sunday only, our merry band of volunteers had donned wellies and gloves and had plucked and washed rows upon rows of newly unearthed Sarpo Axona potatoes. Now, muddy-kneed and rosy-cheeked, it was time to go home, each toting a 5kg hessian sack of said spuds.
These were the sacks into which the rest of the day’s harvest would be packed for sale in the run up to Christmas, to raise both funds for, and awareness of, SPUDS.ie, the voluntary community research group whose aim – by promoting the use of naturally blight-resistant potatoes, such as Sarpo Axona – is to demonstrate no less than the potential for sustainable agricultural practice in Ireland. SPUDS.ie founder, Kaethe Burt-O’Dea, also hopes to raise funds to support another run of her Crisps with a Conscience, made from potatoes of an unusual shape that are normally discarded. Those who buy these bags of Christmas spuds can be guaranteed some good seasonal eating and a lot of seasonal goodwill.
At this top of this page, you’ll find a lot of talk about blight (it’s a fascinating topic, I promise). At the bottom of the page, after all the blighty stuff, there’s some information for anyone – but particularly restaurants around Dublin and Wicklow – who would be interested in trying out, and reporting back on, what may well be a new-to-them variety of potato, namely the floury textured Sárpo Axona, a naturally blight resistant variety that is grown with a minimum of chemical inputs, and holds up taste wise too. By all means, skip ahead to that part if you like.
Orange 8. Green 5. Pink 6. Blue 13.
Rather like Mr. Pink et al. in filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s cult crime classic, Reservoir Dogs, the apparently cutesy colour assignments above are anything but. According to a presentation made at the GIY Gathering in Waterford last September by Dr. Ewen Mullins of Teagasc, that little rainbow of titles refers to the different families of blight found in Ireland, and the damage they inflict on a potato crop can indeed be criminal. And while there are a myriad maladies that can afflict the potato – they come assorted viral, bacterial and fungal forms – along with brigades of baleful beasties – slugs, nematodes and wire worms, to name but a few – it is blight that made the history books and blight that is feared above all others; that its Latin name, Phytophthora Infestans, means plant destroyer is no accident. That there has, in the past, been research into its suitability as a biological weapon is not all that surprising either.
And so it is that almost any conversation about potato cultivation comes around, sooner or later, to the topic of blight resistance. Better blight resistance is the chief focus of the continuing (to say nothing of contentious) trial of GM potatoes by Teagasc – you can read more on the ins and outs of that particular topic over here – while the Welsh-based Sárvari Trust, under the stewardship of blight expert Dr. David Shaw, continues – on a wing and a prayer – to develop and promote the Sárpo family of potatoes, which have high levels of natural blight resistance.
Sárpo Axona: one of the blight resistant Sárpo family
Why should you care?
For some reason, I picture David Shaw, the energy behind the Welsh-based Sárvári Trust, in the beret-topped garb of a WW2 resistance fighter. In David’s case, however, the enemy (and one of Goliath proportions at that) is potato blight and his weapons of choice are the Sárpo line of potatoes, bred to have high levels of natural blight resistance.
Needless to remark, David was not actually beret-clad when I met him at last week’s SPUDS.ie Tastefest (though I daresay a beret would have suited him). What he did display, though, was a resistance fighter’s spirit and determination in the face of battle on two fronts, with the ever-adapting scourge of potato blight on the one hand and the struggle to keep the Sárvári Trust funded on the other. He was eager to hear about people’s experiences with Sárpo potatoes and to share his expansive knowledge of potato blight – amassed during some 40 years of study – with all who were willing to listen.
David Shaw of the Sárvári Reseach Trust: a bona fide blight resistance fighter