Fabulous farls

MONITOR: The humble potato cake is a perfect way to utilise our favourite vegetable

MONITOR:The humble potato cake is a perfect way to utilise our favourite vegetable

WHEN THE ITALIANS mix potato and flour and call it gnocchi we go wild about it, and yet we have been mixing potato and flour in Ireland for years. The farl, or potato cake, may not end up in liquid – gnocchi’s cute, oblong shape is ideal for dressing in rich buttery sauces – but who says everything is about sauces?

Robert Ditty, he of the award winning, eponymous oatcakes, reminded me about farls at the recent launch of The Country Cooking of Ireland, by Coleman Andrews. That evening he served his farls with smoked eel from Ummera but was quick to point out how versatile the farl is.

We excel at potatoes, eat enough of them to be experts and favour floury over waxy. This latter characteristic is handy when it comes to recipes using potato because, on the whole, floury are better performers than their waxy cousins.

In these frugal times the farl is something to shout about, and not just because they are inexpensive to make, but because there is the opportunity to yin and yang them with luxury ingredients.

Smoked fish, crispy bacon, eggs: all of these proteins perform well with a potato cake and if we want a modern interpretation why not partner the farls with salad for a dish that can combine old with new. A luxury Irish tea time might well have had potato cakes slathered in butter.

A potato cake can come plain, or with currants for a sweet version. Playing with tradition you can add spices or herbs, but the purists out there would be appalled. So would I. Why mess with a farl when it is so willing to cosy up with just about anything?

One reason might be for lightness. As with gnocchi there can be an issue of too much starch leading to something overly worthy. Add eggs and you have something approaching a pancake, light and airy, delicate and soft. In truth it is the introduction of that free commodity, air, that leads to something superior.

The egg yolks add a richness and the whites, well whisked, give that lightness of touch which brings an enhanced potato flavour. A modern take on an old idea? Too many potato cakes, like so much gnocchi, have failed to deliver an experience which has sufficiently convinced me of the joys of something so simple.

Which might be the reason for the farl’s fall from grace. But then as I munched my way through several of Robert Ditty’s excellent examples it was a reminder of how much good, simple food relies on attention to detail. The farl may be a cake, but the point of a good one is to taste the potato.

So what should the ratio be? You only need enough flour to bind the potato (typically 300g of potato to 50g of flour) but if you can get away with less and still bind your cake, the potato has so much more chance to shine.

After that you need to season and think of concentrating flavour. Some people swear that a good potato cake needs baked potatoes rather than boiled, the flour mixed into the still warm mash, seasoning as you go.

Whichever way you choose to cook your potatoes, it is the potato which is supposed to shine. The farl is a very good way to let it. We just need to see more of them.

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