A couple of weekends ago the good people of sleepy Comber let their hair down, made tea and cakes and celebrated the return of their most famous progeny: the Comber Early, a potato so good it gets up before all the others.
Comber Earlies are harvested in May and June. And here’s something you didn’t know: there are many varieties of Comber Early. Because they grow in and around Comber they all qualify for the highly prized Protected Geographical Indication certificate.
Hosted by the Comber Chamber of Commerce, a select group of us was guided by local charmer Kirsty Cherry to three locations all within 15 yards of each other around the town square. Two of these were making dishes using the Comber Earlies. The third one was serving up Glastry ice cream which has no discernible connection with potatoes but, let’s face it, there’s nothing like a sundae after a plate of spuds.
First stop was McBride’s On The Square Bar and Restaurant where Iris McBride herself served a seafood chowder featuring you know what. No photograph can do justice to this culinary monument. Modest in the bowl, this chowder bursts to life in your mouth with the full force of an ocean depth charge. Various smoked fish, mussels and perfectly softened little chunks of potato come together in a creamy and harmonious broth which is smoky, salty and sweet, every component making its mark.
McBride’s upstairs restaurant harks back to an older time of peaceful, small town and informal hospitality where the service matters as much as the food on your plate. The bright, spacious dining room is unfussy and simple yet supremely comfortable and welcoming. If you take your family there you’ll be reminded of holiday outings of 50 years ago.
But we have no time to lose and are quickly shepherded across the corner of the square to Number 14, an imposing Georgian pile all solid and austerely elegant. Around the back is a yard where tables and awnings offer shade or sun. People have been celebrating and the craic is as mighty as the front of the place is sombre. We are soon plied with a trio of potato experiments created by Chef Patron Jim Mulholland’s latest protégé, the talented Paul Cunningham, formerly of Brunel’s in Newcastle.
Chef Paul has baked some Combers in hay to render them a light-destroying matt black.
This is an interesting departure which imbues the sweet, firm and nutty Comber potato with a hint of hay smoke but it needs moisture like melted butter to make it work more pleasantly. Also on the plate is a piece of smoked Lough Neagh eel accompanied by a crispy potato puri-like puff and a mousse made from potato skins which comes with an onion bouillon. This is astonishing for the flavour of the skins comes through intensely and sweetly.
Chef Mulholland then brings out a braised piece of Dexter partnered to its glamorous assistant, a fondant of Combers. We could eat this all day long. Paul has added clover leaves and a tasty mound of herby, sandy, gremolata to add that sense of field-to-fork fun.
Number 14 is a beautiful place. Beyond that back yard lies a walled garden whose proportions are perfect. An old wall the whole way round is partially hidden by pear and apple trees, elderflower bushes and other lush, wild greenery. And in the centre is a lush lawn just waiting for party lights, a marquee and a band.
Our schedule means a final stop in Sugarcane, the café right facing across the other side of the square. Bright and glossy, the Sugarcane reminds me of those milk bars which featured in earlier teenage movies from the era of James Dean to Michael J Fox. It’s the place for coffee, ice-cream sundaes, and the wickedest sticky toffee pudding in the region. It’s also the only place in Comber which is free of potatoes this day. We were glad to close the day with Glastry Farm’s finest.
McBride’s On The Square