Stand by your Spud by Tom Doorley

I’ve been enjoying my crop of first early potatoes lately, and a first taste of a variety called Sarpo Mira, bred in Hungary and said to be exceptionally resistant to blight. Well, so far so good. Not a sign of the dreaded disease; and I can report that they taste good, too, with a moderately floury texture. I’ll be growing them again.

But, in other news, the great Irish love affair with the spud appears to be waning. In other cultures, bread is the staff of life; here in Ireland we have traditionally looked to the potato to sustain us through thick and thin, despite our experience of the Great Famine.

The potato is part of what are, but not for much longer according reports. Consumption is set to decline by 40 p.c. over the next decade as families look to alternative forms of carbohydrate like rice, pasta, couscous and even tropical sweet potatoes.

Having said that, we are still serious consumers of the so-called humble (why humble?) spud, tucking in to 162,000 tonnes every year and that beats pasta and rice by a very comfortable margin.

However, Bord Bia reported last year that spuds are increasingly seen as old-fashioned (what?!!), fattening (hmmm…) and a hassle to cook (you’ve got to be kidding!)

We need to take pride in potatoes, in the diverse varieties that we have bred down the years, in the cuisine that’s based on them, on the fact that we (in the form of Tayto) invented the cheese and onion crisp.

There will always be room for pasta and rice and couscous and heaven knows what else that we import from other traditions and cultures. We’re no longer insular and monocultural but the potato belongs to Ireland in a very special sense. We should take pride in it.

It’s time to stand by your spud! Here are a few facts about the potato which may have escaped your attention…

A SPUD FOR ALL SEASONS:

While the English regard potatoes as a kind of generic form of starch, we can debate the relative merits of different strains and varieties. There are those who claim that Home Guard (which dates from the 1940s) is the foremost new potato, despite its inclination to get blight. There are others who will argue for Duke of York (from the 1890s). Some will claim that the new potatoes, the so-called “first earlies” are as nothing compared with the cream of the mid-season spuds, the second earlies, and cite British Queen (named after Queen Victoria) as the best of them all.

Where other countries are content to consume just “potatoes” we buy actual varieties in the same way that people favour Sauvignon Blanc over Chardonnay or Shiraz over Cabernet. There are those who inist on Caras over Pentland Dells or Golden Wonders over Roosters.

HOW NUTRITIOUS IS THE POTATO? WELL, ER…

True, potatoes are nutritionally dubious. Served in their skins, they are a good source of vitamin C and they provide a modicum of dietary fibre. In other forms, you may as well be eating pasta or white rice; the potato is, essentially, a refined carbohydrate.

YOU SAY PATATA, WE SAY POTATO:

The word “potato” is Spanish in origin, as befits a vegetable that originates in South America. The Incas of Peru were the first to grow and develop the patata, technically Solanum tuberosum, between 8,000BC and 5,000BC. When the Spanish invaded in the 16th century they loved this local staple food and sent tubers home for cultivation. So when you see patatas bravas on a tapas menu, we should remember that the Spanish found them first.

POTATO FARMERS DESERVE SUPPORT:

The people who grow our spuds receive only 26% of the retail price. The price is currently below the cost of production. Add to that the predations of blight over the past few seasons when the combination of damp and warmth was ideal for the spread of the disease, and the commercial production of potatoes becomes a very challenging business. Blight is now mutating into new and resistant strains on a regular basis, so it’s not going to get easier. We should appreciate how hard it is to put spuds on our table.

THE CORK CONNECTION:

The conquidstadors went to Peru in 1536 and discovered the spud. By 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh was planting potatoes near Youghal in East Cork, where Europe’s first crop was grown. It would take another forty years before spuds reached the rest of Europe, where they met with varying reactions.

THE POTATO GROWING LEAGUE:

The world’s number one potato producer is that nation of rice and noodle eaters, China, with a score of 72m tonnes per annum. Russia is next with 37m tonnes and, in third place, India with 26m tonnes. We in Ireland weigh in with a respectable 1.5m tonnes.

FROM PIG FODDER TO FASHIONABLE FOOD:

Although we in Ireland have been growing potatoes for human food from the late 1600s, the Germans considered potatoes to be fit only for feeding swine. And prisoners. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a French pharmacist, was captured by the Prussians when he was serving in the French army. He, like other captives, were fed on potatoes and rather liked them. He instinctively recognised their culinary qualities and spent the rest of his life promoting the potato as a food for people.

But it was an uphill struggle as the French simply didn’t take to the spud. He persuaded King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette to grow an experimental patch of potatoes at Neuilly, which is now a suburb of Paris. Cleverly, he arranged for the crop to be guarded by soldiers with fixed bayonets to that the local people would believe that something very special was being cultivated. As the crop ripened, the guard was relaxed at night and the populace, naturally, nicked as many spuds as they could. Thus, the potato became desirable!

THE ACCIDENTAL CRISP:

In the 1850s the American railway tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, eating in a restaurant, sent back his fried potatoes as he considered them too thick. The enraged chef sliced the next portion ridiculously thinly (as he thought) fried them until crisp and showered them with salt. Vanderbilt loved them and so the crisp was born. (But we should remember that “game chips” have been served in Ireland and Britain for at least two centuries; they are pretty well identical).

SOAPY OR FLOURY:

We are connoisseurs of potatoes. It’s bred in the bone.

By and large, we like floury spuds and I can see why. The flouriness will make fine mash with a good absorbent quality, all the better to soak up gravy or melted butter. And all the better to crisp up when roasted or chipped. The English and, oddly the more voluptuary French, prefer what they call a “waxy” potato. That’s what we, as a nation, tend to call “soapy”. Such spuds are all very well in their own way, but they come into their own solely for the making of potato salad. And potato salad, perfectly okay in its own way, is not what we would regard as the spud’s true destiny. Even with a mustardy vinaigrette and loads of chopped chives.

SPUDS IN SPACE:

In 1995, the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space. NASA demonstrated that it would be possible to grow potatoes on long space missions. And we think they are “hassle” to prepare!

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