Bill Chase of Deelish Garden Centre in Skibbereen says that writing about potatoes in Ireland is a bit like describing snow to eskimoes.
Not only does everyone have their favourite varieties; anyone who grows them has their favoured methods and strategies for combating the many enemies of the crop. It’s a versatile vegetable; you can use potatoes to remove rust, or shine your shoes, or cure a rash, or…you can eat them!
Happily, very few of us are bothered by the seldom expressed truth that the potato is a blow-in (it originated in Chile and Peru). But, perhaps typically, the English were so agitated by the thought of consuming a potato that in the 1850s they established The Society for the Prevention of Unwholesome Diet simply to keep the thing out of their country. Still, you can’t keep a good spud down and its use as a staple crop has so increased over the eight millennia in which it’s been cultivated that now every man, woman and child on the planet consumes over 30 kg. of them, or would if we all shared an equal diet.
In this country we have of course embraced the potato to the extent that it has become the iconic national food; the stuff around which all other ingredients are measured. It’s central to any thoughts of taking nourishment. And yet, it must be admitted that the potato is a crop totally unsuited to the Irish climate; it likes nothing more than sun and warmth, and it loathes damp, dank days and cloddy wet soils. So why persist in this ultimately doomed love affair? Well, potatoes are familiar, and some years they do grow well and above all, they taste good, though just what that means has been debated over many a pint.
Any listing of ‘the best’ potato varieties is clearly challenging; it is a well understood truth that no two people have ever shared potato tastes. So, in an attempt to be provocative, I will commend a few sorts of spud for specific purposes.
Boiled: Charlottes, Desiree, Duke of York, Golden Wonder, Nicola, Orla, Pink Fir Apple.
Roast: British Queen, Cara, Home Guard, King Edward, Maris Peer, Record, Rooster.
Baked: Cara, Kerrs Pink, Red Duke of York, Rooster, Sante,
Chips: Cara, Kerrs Pink, King Edward, Maris Piper, Record, Rooster, Sharpes Express, Sante.
There are also a few new ones on the block; the Sarpo family, in particular Mira, Axona and Setanta. While it’s perfectly true that they have miraculously overcome the vagaries of our climate, performing well in nearly all weather conditions, in the opinion of some, the less said about their taste, the better.
For those who are carried forward by the anticipation of plunging their seed potatoes into a well formed ridge, the question arises, when? Well, soon.
First earlies, — which are, unsurprisingly, the first to be harvested — should go in towards the beginning of March, (after a few weeks of chitting, of course). Second earlies are planted in the middle of the month, around St. Patrick’s day, and maincrops, which, unless they are Sarpo types, will almost certainly need some sort of protection from blight, are put in towards the end of March.These schedules are subject to weather conditions of course, and so will seldom be followed.
There is something quite satisfying about producing your own spuds, whether in a barrel or a tyre or a fish box or even in the ground, and despite all the tribulations which lay ahead…well, have a go and taste the result.