Potty about tubers

We are familiar with the many varieties of potato but try asking your older relatives about those they remember from childhood


Exactly which varieties of potato are you growing this year? As ever, I’m too greedy to limit myself to just one or two, and instead have several different varieties chitting in cardboard boxes, all ready to be planted out in the next week or two.

Most are familiar to any gardener interested in growing their own; ‘Charlotte’ (a delicious, second-early, salad potato), ‘Orla’ (a fantastically productive first-early), ‘Nicola’ (another flavoursome, second-early variety), ‘Setanta’ (a red-skinned maincropper with good disease resistance), ‘Pink Fir Apple’ (a Victorian variety vulnerable to blight but mouth-wateringly tasty), ‘Blue Danube’ (a purple-skinned maincrop variety bred by Sarvari, with excellent tuber-blight resistance).

But when I ask my 80-year-old father to name the potato varieties that he remembers from his childhood, none of the above feature. “‘Arran Consul’,” he instead tells me firmly. “Are you sure?” I ask, doubtfully. I’d heard of ‘Arran Banner’ and ‘Arran Victory’ but it takes a careful search of the index of Potato Varieties of Historical Interest Grown in Ireland (a slim, informative guide to heritage Irish potato varieties, published by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food some years ago) to convince me that such a variety truly existed. Turns out that it did, and that it was introduced into cultivation in 1925, just a few years before my father was born.

“Your grandfather mentions two particular varieties of potato from his childhood, in one of his plays”, my father then mentions as an aside (my grandfather, Padraic Fallon, was a poet and a playwright). Another search ensues, this time resulting in the original manuscript of his radio play called Out On A Limb , broadcast by RTÉ in the 1950s. And there it was. Page 40. The lines:

“Potatoes, Kerr’s Pinks, the royal

Champion, in rows, lines, little trees

littering below the pole

of light, the penny-bright fruit of the

fierce dark clays .”

Again I check the index of my book. ‘Kerr’s Pink’, it tells me, was introduced in 1906, when my grandfather was just a toddler. As for ‘Champion’, it was introduced in 1862. My guess is that my grandfather wrote about this legendary Scottish potato variety either because he grew it himself or because he remembered his own father growing it. By now, I’ve decided that these three varieties of potato will join the others I’m growing this year and that my father will get to enjoy a small taste of his childhood.

How will I lay my hands on the seed potatoes? I’m planning to be one of the many people attending one of the upcoming Potato Days, where gardeners Dermot Carey and David Langford will be displaying and discussing the remarkable potato collection they have amassed and cared for over many years. Once upon a time its home was in the great Victorian walled garden of Lissadell, before it closed to the public. Since then it’s been on the move – its most recent temporary domicile was the garden of well-known Wicklow organic grower Denis Healy. But this spring it takes up permanent residence in Co Cavan, in the walled kitchen garden of chef Richard Corrigan, where Dermot Carey now works.

Earlier this week Carey and Langford accepted an award from the Irish Foodwriters’ Guild for their work in preserving this remarkable collection. The oldest variety in it is one that Carey calls ‘Irish Apple’, which some say dates from the late 18th century. Carey’s favourites include ‘La Ratte’, another fantastically tasty Victorian variety famed for its nutty flavour. But the collection, which numbers close to 200 different potato varieties, stretches right up to the 21st century. Limited quantities of seed potatoes of some of the varieties will be for sale at the events, giving gardeners the chance to grow a little piece of history.

But how to avoid blight? If you’re considering growing potatoes for the first time this year, bear in mind that early varieties have a far shorter growing season (average of 14 weeks) than maincrop (18-20 weeks), making them less vulnerable. Careful crop rotation aside, seasoned potato growers should also make sure that the ground is well-manured and cleared of left-over “volunteers” or potato dumps which may harbour disease.

If you want to grow maincrop varieties, but garden in an allotment where blight can quickly spread from one plot to another, choose one with good blight resistance. Look out for the Sarpo range (mrmiddleton.com), ‘Bionica’ (fruithillfarm.com) or ‘Tibet’ (irishseedsavers.ie).

Planting at generous spacings and cutting foliage back to the ground at the first sign of the disease will also help prevent blight.

Diary Dates
Today: “Potato Madness” at the Organic Centre , Co Leitrim, with David Shaw, John Brennan, Kathe Burt-Dea and Aoife Cox
Saturday, March 22nd, 11am-4pm, Potato Day at Sonairte (sonairte.ie); 10am-5pm, ISNA Plant Fair, Red Stables, St Anne’s Park, Raheny, Dublin

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