Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 December 2014

It's a mash hit at home and boasts worldwide a-peel

AS the Ulster History Circle unveils a plaque to the Co Antrim breeder of the Maris Piper potato, Joris Minne charts our love affair with the humble spud

What did potatoes ever do for us? The potato defines us in so many ways; sometimes it's hard to imagine what we would be like without it.

Growing up in Armagh as a child in the Sixties, potatoes were the central foundation of lunch and evening meals, seven days a week.

Even for an immigrant family like ours, you couldn't avoid the potato. My mother, who had always been a very good and knowledgeable cook, had our greengrocer tortured, asking for impossible items like chickory, courgettes and aubergines until he wised her up to celery, carrots, turnips, onions, beetroot, scallions and potatoes.

She was, of course, familiar with all of these, but it was all a bit dark and stodgy. These were largely root vegetables and, while they had their place, she still felt there could be a market for the produce she liked. She was right, but it would take the greengrocer and everyone else 20 years to find it.

The clue to the spud's central position in Ireland's culinary frame is its versatility and universality. You will find the same love for the potato in Belfast as in Cork, in the same way as the French love for a good baguette stretches from Lille to Marseille.

But how did an import from Latin America become so embedded in our national psyche? When it first appeared in the 16th century, it was a miracle food, an "apple of the earth" with enough nutritional qualities and crop reliability to quickly dominate the agricultural landscape.

It soon supplanted the indigenous staple food of the peasantry – root vegetables, barley and oats. Planters coming to Ireland in the 17th century accelerated the spread of the potato.

By now, the potato was a weapon, the binding mechanism which would keep share-croppers in their place, maintain steady incomes for landowners and generate stability in an unequal and fast-growing society. Possibly the most abiding image of the potato in Ireland is the boiled tuber, mashed-up, skin and all, with buttermilk. Even after four years of the Great Famine, when absolute reliance by millions of people on the potato was laid bare, the love affair continued.

Today, the plate of steaming potatoes on the table is still common, but it is starting to look decidedly old-fashioned. Marketing people from Wilsons, Glens of Antrim, Eagle Hill and other potato sellers are increasingly relying on branding and more advertising spend to keep up with the growth of pasta and rice.

A recent straw-poll of friends with families in Belfast, Derry, Newry and Armagh showed that potatoes were on the table at weekends, but rarely during the week. They take too long to boil, fry, chip, or mash, came the response.

Is it any wonder that companies like Mash Direct in Comber have acted on the new modern family ways by pre-preparing potato dishes for the microwave? Interestingly, their marketing is all about a return to the roots, with pictures of rolling County Down countryside.

But rice and pasta are definitely on trend and have been for some years now. In fact, such is the concern that children are losing out on vitamins and minerals from the lack of potato in their diet that some effort is being made to restore it to its former top slot.

Either that, or the Irish potato men have hired the right kind of medical survey to come up with the right kind of scare tactic.

The fact is that there are potatoes which now appear very modern – from the Adirondack Blue to the Yukon Gold, waxy little Charlottes and Vivaldis from Israel and France, Bartlet's Red Roosters from – seemingly – America (they're actually grown in Antrim and Down) and the classic Maris Piper from everywhere else, all seem recently designed.

Yet, of the thousand or so spud varieties, they have been around for a long time – just like Kerr's Pinks and King Edwards.

And, in terms of actual culinary pleasure to be sucked from a potato, nothing comes close to the sinful, hedonistic and decadent delight of a chip.

Many have their views of what a good chip is: my daughters like them unevenly hand-cut and large with salt and vinegar. No French fries for them, thanks very much. My current favourite chip is far more pretentious and showbiz. This chip is sold in Deane and Decano, where chef Chris Fearon has created the perfect version, skin-on, thin, crispy, served with a truffle mayonnaise and sprinkled with grated parmesan. He doesn't even call them chips; they're 'truffle fries'.

My mother used to laugh at the hotel restaurants here, which prided themselves on the choice of five potatoes on the menu – mashed, chipped, champ, baked or boiled.

"What about lyonnaise, gratineed, dauphinoise, or Anna? Or mousseline croquettes, duchesse, or aligot?" she'd whisper, all superior. But they're all widely available in many places now.

Potatoes are becoming more refined and talked about, but they feature less and less at home. As we embrace the international standards of conformity – pizza, curry and chow mein – the potato is likely to be increasingly consigned to restaurants, chip shops and special family meals.

If we are to be modern, we have to let go of the spud, it seems. But letting go of the spud is like denying one's Irishness.

It might be on the wane, but it will always be there.

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