|Illustration by Caty Bartholomew|
Since it is the potato crop, and its failure all those decades ago, which bonds us together on both shores of the Atlantic today in real terms, I want this week to write for you about the modern Irish potato and its realities.
Do read on please for your own advantage when visiting Ireland anytime in the future, and forgive me for being of my generation and using the word spud instead of potato as I head out along the ridges and furrows of this yarn.
Fifty years ago and more all of us were raised on spuds and whatever could be put on the plate along with them, frequently boiled bacon (not corned beef!) and succulent white cabbage and invariably fish (normally smoked coley) on our Catholic Fridays.
Rice back then was for delicate children and elderly folk and was rarely seen. Pasta in all its forms did not exist at all in rural Ireland back then; modern culinary elements like curries and pizzas were of another planet altogether. The spud ruled supreme.
It is a remarkable child memory of mine that although the oldest living folk of that era were four or five generations away from the Potato Famine, there was still some deep, dark marrow memory within them of the horror it had been.
The gentlest and mildest of them would always over-react to any wastage of any food on the table. They became angry if a child took one bite out of a slice of brown bread and left the rest behind.
Woe betide you if any spud was wasted or abused in any fashion, such as being allowed to fall on the kitchen floor. The folk memory of the Great Hunger was that deep and dark.
I have a residual tincture of it myself even today. I hate to see food unnecessarily wasted.
In our country at that time the early crop of potatoes were from a variety known as Epicures. They were truly pampered in their garden ridges, gently molded up when they first shoved up their green heads above the earth, kept weed-free, sprayed with bluestone (copper sulphate) against the blight which caused the Famine in its time and, when ready for eating, almost tenderly dug up with sharp spades which always somehow avoided cutting their white skins.
Many people celebrated their arrival by extracting one or two from the pot before dinner and simply eating slices of them with salt and butter on a wooden board. That was a taste to die for.
The main crop was of Ulster Chieftains, not quite so tasty but with the capacity to save well in the earth-covered spud pits in the garden and to last through the winter.
They were multipurpose also. In addition to being the backbone of the dinner they also made magnificent "hurdles" of a dish called boxty when grated raw, mixed with flour, shaped into patties and fried in the pan. Lay a fried egg atop a slice of boxty back then and Bob was your uncle.
Leftover cooked spuds also made grand spud bread when fried. Who needed pasta or rice when that was available?
The world has changed since then in every way. We eat far less spuds in Ireland nowadays. You can go for weeks without getting a decent plate of spuds put in front of you if you are not at home and in command of your own pots.
Rice and pasta seem to be increasingly the order of the day. Connected with that development, when you do get spuds in a restaurant or hotel you can be certain they will not taste like those Epicures and Chieftains.
You are most likely to get mashed spuds, and that mash is created from new varieties of spuds like Roosters and Records. These varieties crop very heavily and well in commercial terms and are market leaders in consequence.
But, dammit, the subtle taste of the best of the older varieties like Kerrs Pinks has been totally lost in the mutation. Especially when in mashed form.
Now here is a priceless nugget of advice for those of you arriving in Ireland soon for any event of The Gathering or just for a routine holiday. Especially for those many among you who will be self-catering (a growing segment of the market I'm told) when going shopping for food supplies.
Put a small sack of Golden Wonder spuds at the top of your list. This variety, I swear, is perfectly named.
You will see that these spuds are pear-shaped, of medium size, and they cost a small bit more than others. But they are worth every cent of the extra charge, especially if they were grown in Wexford or Waterford. The true taste of paradise.
But a word of warning. Golden Wonders are as delicate as the skin of a princess. They need to be cooked in boiling water with great care.
They have to be watched constantly and drained and steamed in the pot when still firm, when other varieties would still only be half-cooked. Give them maybe 10 minutes of gentle boiling before steaming for five.
If overcooked they are so internally rich and succulent and tasty they will burst their jackets and turn into the mash you are trying to avoid.
Properly cooked, though, they will expose their lovely floury white bellies to the first touch of the knife and fork and will provide you with the most rewarding taste sensation of your holiday.
I have a pot of them ripening on the hob now for the Dutch Nation and myself so I have to leave you at once.