An Irishman's Diary

 

Never mind the Catholic-Protestant thing, which is only a distraction. The real divide between two peoples of this island is a far more elemental one. It is rooted in the soil itself, and not even George Mitchell could broker a compromise, writes Frank McNally.

It is, in short, the divide between those who like floury potatoes and those who prefer the so-called "waxy" kind.

I may as well declare my interest straight away here as a member of the floury persuasion. We believe ourselves to be the island's majority community, although in the absence of a referendum this may be disputed. As for the rest of you, we respect your right to enjoy waxy ("soapy" is our preferred term) potatoes, mystifying as it is. We pray that you will see the error of your ways, eventually.

It must be said that, even among the majority faith, there are differences of opinion. As a member of the church of the Golden Wonder, I would almost go so far to say that, for flouriness, the GW is your only man. It is certainly the driest variety. But I know that the Kerr's Pink, the Record, and even the British Queen, all have their enthusiasts.

Whether there are similar differences among the waxy community, I cannot say. Their potatoes all taste the same to us. But if I can make a generalisation about these people, it is that they may not know any better. Some probably grew up during the dark period of the 1970s when Cadbury's Smash appeared to be a breakthrough for civilisation. Others may simply never have experienced the joy of a truly floury spud.

Again, we have no hard data, because the Central Statistics Office inexplicably refuses to include a section about potato preferences on the census form. But there is at least anecdotal evidence of an urban-rural aspect to the divide, with country people overwhelmingly on the floury side and city folk predominantly on the waxy. There is also evidence to suggest that conversions are in one direction only.

Certainly I know few farm-reared people who will admit to enjoying soapy spuds. Yet one frequently meets Dubliners, born and bred, who prefer floury ones. On further examination, it usually emerges that they have spent some of their childhoods in the country: on holidays, in reform school, etc.

The terrible thing is that what I believe to be the majority preference on this island is fast becoming a minority experience. All too often now, consumers are forced to eat the soapy sort, whether they like them or not. Ireland seems to be experiencing a new potato famine, in which the non-waxy varieties increasingly fail to appear in supermarkets.

The choice for floury enthusiasts is stark: take the soap - as it were - or perish. Some of the reasons are economic. According to Teagasc's Tom Maher, Ireland's greatest potato expert (and, it need hardly be said, a floury man), the Golden Wonder is down to 5 per cent of Ireland's total potato acreage and slipping every year. It was fifth in the league in 2005 and is about be passed out by the chippers' favourite, the Maris Piper.

The GW's problem is its susceptibility to internal rust spot, a calcium imbalance which, when it strikes, wipes out the entire crop. The condition has struck twice in the past 10 years. Once stung, says Tom, a potato farmer will not grow Golden Wonder again.

By contrast, high yield and durability has inspired the relentless rise of the Rooster, which arrived here only in 1991 and is now the top potato. Barely floury to begin with, the Rooster often has to contend with wet soils and over-application of nitrogen. By which time it has invariably defected to the waxy side.

Then there is the contribution of restaurants and their so-called "baby potatoes". These are not babies in the sense that they would ever grow up to be real potatoes, and certainly not floury ones. They are a travesty of the whole potato concept, imported from France, Cyprus and Israel. But restaurants love them, for no better reason than their small, regular shapes that fit easily into saucepans and look cute on plates. "Little balls of soap," Tom Maher calls them, adding that the silt soils they require are not available in Ireland. "We couldn't grow them here even if we wanted to," he says, with undisguised pride.

As it is, the Department of Agriculture preserves about 400 traditional varieties on a farm in Donegal. These include the four Famine-era potatoes: black, apple, cups, and lumper. Separately, Irish Seed Savers have a farm in Clare, to which enthusiasts including Tom make a day trip every summer "to look at potatoes and talk about them".

All the traditional "Irish" varieties - Kerr's Pinks, Arran Banners, Skerrie Champions, and so on - are actually Scottish. Which may be why the Irish and Scots are the only the nations in the world with a floury preference. Yes, Scotland and Ireland stand together in this cause, just as in Braveheart, but this time against a vast soapy conspiracy that stretches around the globe.

Meanwhile, in our midst, the purveyors of wax seem to be multiplying. In my local market recently I was sold organic potatoes that, although of a continental variety (the traditional ones are not blight-resistant), were promoted as "floury". In fact, on the flour-soap spectrum, they almost qualified as toiletries.

If the organic growers

cannot do better than this, we may as well all give up and eat Smash.