The story of the potato in Northern Ireland has, ahem, deep roots in the Comber area of County Down, which of course is celebrated for its EU PGI new season potatoes. In fact, the first literary reference to potatoes in Ireland, dated 1606, refers to land in Comber being given over for growing this staple.
Potato-growing in Comber is intertwined with the history of two influential Ulster-Scots families named Hamilton and Montgomery. Only potatoes planted and grown in the former Hamilton Montgomery lands around County Down can be marketed as Comber Earlies.
Having been granted the elite EU PGI status in 2012, it’s great to see Comber Earlies now among some of the world’s most distinctive foods, in the same league as Parma ham, Roquefort cheese and champagne. Only potatoes harvested in the designated area during May, June and July each year are eligible for the PGI status.
The local fields are protected from winter ravages by the Mourne Mountains and the nurturing embrace of Strangford Lough, so the seed tubers are planted in drills from early January each year – much earlier than in other parts of Northern Ireland. The plants have dark green foliage and the potatoes themselves are smallish round or oval shape. The skin is soft, thin and loose and the flavour is earthy, sweet and nutty, giving that distinctive ‘early’ potato flavour. Amazingly, each batch of the crop can be traced back to the farm it came from.
Comber Potato Company
The McKee farming family eat, sleep and breathe potatoes. They can trace the family back as far as the early 1700s, and they have farmed in the Comber area as far back as the fourth generation. Robin and Ivan McKee of the Comber Potato Company were instrumental in getting the PGI award and they usually harvest around 300 tonnes of Comber Earlies each year.
Every May and June in the fertile soil of the southern slopes of Scrabo Hill, they’re hard at work harvesting their potatoes, which local chefs and households everywhere are itching to get their hands on. The rest of the year they’re planting, digging and packing baby potatoes and Maris Pipers, 1,500 tonnes of them no less. After all that, what’s their favourite food? Potatoes.
Comber Earlies with Roast Garlic and Rosemary Recipe
A versatile side dish from Colin McCreedy of the La Mon Hotel and Country Club in the heart of Comber Early country.
– 12 Comber Earlies (equal in size)
– butter and olive oil, as required
– 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
– 4 sprigs of rosemary
– salt & pepper
– sea salt flakes, to serve
1. Scrub and wash the Comber Earlies. Boil in salted water for 20-25 minutes or until tender, then drain and keep warm.
2. Place a pan on a medium-high heat, add a good knob of butter, a drizzle of olive oil, the sliced garlic and sprigs of rosemary; season and sauté for 1 minute.
3. Add the Comber potatoes to the pan, coat with the butter mixture and cook for 4-5 minutes to roast and crisp the skin. Take care to keep rolling potatoes in the pan to brown them evenly and prevent burning.
4. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt flakes and serve.
For more foodie inspiration, why not visit Discover Northern Ireland – Food for even more great recipes, or join the conversation online with #EnjoyNI16.