Potato heads


Tom Keogh could talk for weeks about why the Irish are turning away from potatoes, but instead his family farm has found innovative ways to recapture our love of the the humble spud, writes ROISIN INGLE

LOOKING ACROSS THE yard of the potato farm in north Co Dublin, where generations of his family have been growing spuds for more than 200 years, Tom Keogh assesses the commercial fortunes of our national vegetable. In the past 10 years, a timeframe that coincides with a revival of the carb-rejecting Atkins diet, Bord Bia estimates sales have fallen by about 50 per cent.

“Spuds are on the floor,” says Keogh, as lorries packed high with them trundle past on their way to supermarkets across the land.

There’s no shortage of potatoes. Last year was a particularly good growing season, with yields up by 20 per cent – a bumper crop of 375,000 tonnes that has itself caused a problem. “There are far too many potatoes in the country at the moment,” Keogh says. “They cost more to grow and store than the price we are getting for them – and fewer people are buying.”

It paints an interesting picture, this temporary potato mountain, and a nation gradually falling out of love with something as synonymous with Irishness as shamrocks and the sliotar.

The traditional potato-growing season starts after St Patrick’s Day, and more people than ever will be growing their own in gardens and allotments around the country in coming weeks. Yet rice, pasta, noodles, cous cous, pizza and frozen chips are increasingly being plucked from supermarket shelves as carbohydrate alternatives to the humble spud.

Keogh could talk “for weeks” about the reasons we are turning away from this traditional staple, a vegetable that in the past seemed almost hardwired into our DNA. He says the damage done by Atkins was immeasurable and the poor old potato has something of an image problem, especially among younger people.

“It’s seen as an old-fashioned food, something our grandparents ate with every meal – that whole meat-and-two-veg thing. There’s definitely also an issue about educating people on what a great source of nutrition it is. A potato with the skin on has more Vitamin C than an orange, more potassium than a banana, more fibre than an apple – people don’t seem to know about this. It’s seen as a bad food by some people, or it’s just forgotten about because we’ve travelled more and been introduced to what are seen as more worldly foods.”

Ask people who have stopped eating potatoes or dramatically reduced their intake about the reason for their spud fatwa and most of them reply, “Carbs” or, “Empty calories”

“That’s the biggest fallacy about potatoes,” says dietitian Paula Mee, who is keen to spruce up the vegetable’s stodgy image. “Actually, the potato is far superior nutritionally than highly processed rice and pasta, and it’s a much more natural food source too.”

One of the big problems with the perception of the potato is that it has been rated poorly on the glycemic index (GI), which measures how quickly food is broken down and assimilated into the body. In this regard it comes off worse than rice or pasta, which take longer to absorb.

“The thing is,” Mee says, “nobody is going to eat a potato on its own; it’s almost always served with something. So instead of looking at GI, you should be looking at glycemic load when it comes to starchy carbs. When they are eaten with something, the absorption is slower. They are a wonderfully nutritious, fat-free food and still deserve a prominent place on the dinner plate.” (It’s worth noting that the always slender Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s favourite diet food was a baked potato, topped with caviar.)

In the past year, the potato industry has begun to get to grips with the problem. The first National Potato Day took place last August, and towards the end of 2011, Bord Bia commissioned research to unearth why we were turning up our noses at the potato, a quest that attracted international interest and coverage in the New York Times. The research data will be released after the recently created Potato Promotions Group – members include potato growers such as the Keogh family and the Irish Potato Federation – meets to discuss the research and decide on a strategy.

“It’s fair to say it’s a market in decline,” says Mike Neary, Bord Bia’s horticulture manager. “The biggest challenge is to stabilise consumption so we can start to build it up again.”

It’s likely the Potato Promotions Group will target consumers in the 22-to-44 age group, who Neary says are eating fewer potatoes than anybody else. “If we can change one of this group’s meal decisions a week, then we can go some way to addressing the decline,” he says. Bord Bia is also looking to show people that despite the washing, peeling and mashing sometimes involved, spuds are a convenient and healthy food.

Potato.ie, launched last year, has nutritional information and recipes that don’t involve the traditional boiling before slathering the spud with butter or creams. Recipes include potato tart with prawns and a tasty looking parsnip, apple and potato soup.

Despite the decline, the potato remains very much part of who we are.

About 70 per cent of the carbohydrates in our diet are still being supplied by the potato, and those aged 55 and over still have potatoes five or six times a week. We remain one of the highest consumers of potatoes in the world, eating about 85kg per head of population, when both fresh and processed spuds are taken into account. But 20 years ago, that figure was 140kg per head.

Bord Bia is now looking at new markets abroad, following the exporting of about 70,000 tonnes of potato to eastern Europe last season. “In potato terms, we are at a crossroads,” says Neary. “We’ve taken it for granted that we will always eat our potatoes and we just can’t do that anymore.”

One solution may lie in imaginative potato advertising campaigns. Bord Bia will be applying for EU funding for a marketing strategy that could last from three to five years. When it comes to potatoes, these days it seems we need the hard sell.

Among his friends, Tom Keogh has experienced the increasing potato ambivalence. “I was round in a friend’s house one night and he told me he’d bought a bag of potatoes because it had my name on it. I asked him what he was going to do with them. He said he didn’t know, probably nothing, and that he had just bought the bag because my name was on it.”

Keogh can smile about this, but given that spuds are his livelihood, it’s a grim kind of anecdote.

Keogh’s potato farm reflects an approach by Irish potato growers that isn’t far off that of French wine producers. The Comber early potato in Co Down was recently awarded special EU-protected status, and the area is now being described as the Champagne of Northern Ireland, so the comparison isn’t that far-fetched.

Keogh’s father and uncle built one of the first cold stores for potatoes in the country so they could supply potatoes all year long. They are all here. Roosters, the nation’s favourite. Maris Pipers. Records. Salad blues. Golden Wonders. Little Charlottes. Queens. Purple potatoes.

While overall, fresh potato sales have slowed, demand for baby potatoes, which require a lighter soil than the rich, heavy Rooster-friendly earth on the farm, has been increasing, so the Keoghs have growers in other parts of the country producing them.

The potatoes are stored in the cold and warmed up in another area when it’s time for them to be packed because, as Keogh explains, when cold potatoes are handled they bruise.

We walk across from the stores to the washline, where the potatoes take a tumble onto a conveyor belt and are given a good scrub at 12 degrees, a “fantastic” temperature to wash spuds. Then it’s on to the potato polisher, the only one in the country, which gets in at the dirt clinging deep in the potato eyes. Keogh discovered these machines on his travels in New Zealand. A sort of exfoliator for potatoes, the machine has come in handy for the Keoghs’ latest venture: handcooked kettle crisps, allowing them to keep the skins on the potato slices when they are deep fried.

There are some 550 commercial potato growers in Ireland, and the Keoghs, like many others, are putting their energy into ways to entice the consumer back with more convenient packaging. They have developed bags of potatoes designed for the microwave which deliver perfectly cooked potatoes in seven minutes. Keogh holds up the plastic bag of spuds fresh off the packing machine.

“Potatoes are 80 per cent water so this bag acts like a kind of pressure cooker; it has a little valve on it which releases the steam. Normally when you put a potato in the microwave it gets all shrivelled up but with this you get lovely baby potatoes in their skins,” he says.

They have another microwave pack with spuds the perfect size for baking. Baked potatoes are still hugely popular in restaurants. “You get a Six Nations rugby game in Dublin and people go crazy for a baked potato,” says Keogh.

They haven’t yet worked out how to keep the microwaved baked potato skins crispy like those cooked in a conventional oven. “We are working on it,” he says, in the manner of Willy Wonka explaining how he still has some tinkering to do with his everlasting gobstopper.

With sales of fresh potatoes falling, the Keogh family are diversifying. At one point they were looking into producing a low-carbohydrate potato but abandoned it for reasons of taste. “It was horrible,” Keogh says, wincing at the memory.

Last year he became the only potato grower to also produce a handcooked potato crisp on the same farm. After five years of research, he bought a kettle fryer from a Pennsylvanian Amish family and built a special unit in his grandfather’s old potato house, where every week a fresh batch of crisps are made. We put on overalls and caps to enter the white cube that is the crisping house, where, up a set of metal stairs, a man named Casper is overseeing the Lady Clare potatoes, skins on, that are being sliced and separated before being tipped into the kettle fryer’s bubbly oil. The burners kick into action, emitting a noise not unlike a jet engine taking off. For crisp lovers this is the holy grail. The air fills with the gorgeous and oddly comforting smell of fresh deep-fried potato as Keogh explains that the secret to a good kettle crisp is lowering the temperature. They go in at an intense heat – around 150 degrees – which is quickly cooled to a specific temperature get the crunch (“Any lower and you get jaw breakers”) and then heated again.

Once out of the high quality sunflower oil the crisps move along a conveyor belt. They are utterly delicious – tasting them proved essential for research – even before they go through the flavouring drum. At the moment there are three flavours: Dubliner Irish Cheese and Onion, Atlantic Salt and Irish Cider Vinegar, and Irish Roast Beef and Dungarvan Stout. Keogh found a flavourist in the Cotswolds in England who converts these locally sourced Irish ingredients into a mix that looks a bit like instant-soup powder. The crisps get a sprinkling of the powder and are bagged up to be sent off to supermarkets and cafes around the country.

Keogh has become something of a crisp connoisseur at this stage, but producing gourmet crisps doesn’t mean he is snobbish about our most popular brand. “For potato growers it is brilliant to have a company like Tayto here that needs so many potatoes,” he says.

Keogh is always thinking about innovative ways to promote his products. He is toying with the idea of collecting all the heart shaped potatoes they find and packing them up for sale next Valentine’s Day.

For St Patrick’s Day, the Keoghs were involved in a world first: the creation of a shamrock (and sour cream) flavoured crisp. “Shamrock is quite a weak taste, which is why we added the sour cream,” he says.

The shamrock used to make the crisp flavouring is grown by Living Shamrock in Co Kerry, the company that’s been producing shamrock for American presidents since 1952.

“They thought I was mad when I first told them what I wanted to do,” he says with a smile. “I am delighted with the results.”

The crisps are available in Superquinn and other stores and the Irish abroad can buy crisps from the Keogh’s Facebook shop online.

For Aoife Cox, a software developer with an award-winning potato blog called The Daily Spud, innovations from growers like Keogh and debates such as whether Teagasc should grow genetically modified potatoes, give her plenty to write about.

“I’ve been doing the blog for three-and-a-half years and I’ve never run out of potato-related material. It’s turned out to be endlessly fascinating,” she says.

Since starting the blog she says she eats more potatoes, grows them herself and likes coming up with new ways to serve them. Her most experimental creation so far has been a potato milkshake (“not as bad as it sounds”).

Her take on the current challenge for potato growers is that with a big marketing push and a bit of potato rebranding, the decline can be reversed.

“There is still such a huge affection for potatoes here,” she says. “I think maybe we’ve been taking them for granted and there is a realisation now that we need to educate people about everything from the different varieties – there are a lot more potatoes available than just the Rooster – to the fact that there are really quick and easy ways to cook them.”

Keogh agrees. “I think the biggest thing is education and getting younger people interested in potatoes and knowing about what a great local food source they are,” he says. “Basically we need to make the spud cool again.”