Mary Feely: Potatoes are part of what we are – do they need spindoctors?

‘Irish farmers have suffered with milk, grain and meat prices: supermarkets squeeze them, to the point where it’s unprofitable to produce the food in the first place’

When I moved to the countryside, as an innocent blow-in I assumed I’d be able to buy stacks of tasty, locally grown fruit and veg.

Wrong-o. My desperate search for a decent tomato was briefly suspended, but resumed when the vendor – a fish-processing plant that grew veg on the side – went bust. The owner of a nearby shop flirted with home-grown cabbages, but gave up when he failed to grow them for the same low price he could buy them in. As for Irish apples, I can sink my teeth into them only if I go scrumping.

Still, my part of Co Louth does provide other first-class ingredients: fresh crab caught a little ways up the coast, or salmon smoked and barbecued in a village a few miles away; free-range eggs with golden yolks that make scrumptious cakes; and flour from rye grown and milled nearby.

And the spuds! I buy big, floury Queens or Roosters (my ultimate comfort food) from a neighbour who grows them; a 10-kilo sack costs a few euro. I can even get my hands on Golden Wonders, the variety my neighbour reverently calls “the Rolls Royce of spuds”.

If I had to choose one single food to live on the rest of my life, it would have to be potatoes. I love them every way. Boiled and served with garlic butter. Peeled, cut into wedges and tossed in olive oil for oven fries. Mashed with scallions, garlic or onion . . .

I assumed I'd have access to locally grown spuds, well, forever. But it turns out I was complacent. Irish farmers are planting fewer spuds, so this year's crop will be 15-20 per cent smaller than last year's.

Market price

One problem is the same dynamic Irish farmers have suffered with milk, grain and meat prices: supermarkets squeeze them, to the point where it’s unprofitable to produce the food in the first place. My neighbour, for example, says he

when selling directly to customers.

On Monday, about 6,000 Irish farmers joined a demonstration in Brussels to protest about plunging prices. The EU responded with a €500 million aid package for farmers.

But will that be enough? the restored workhouse in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, as I did this summer. Take a look at the unheated room where traumatised little girls slept all together on a wooden platform, forbidden to mix with loved ones in other parts of the workhouse.

Cultural value

The potato is part of our culture like no other food. Spurning it now we live in a gentler society would be wrong. Still, if the spud needs to reinvent itself, I have some suggestions.

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Sell potatoes to the diaspora. When I lived in the US – land of the miserable, tasteless, watery, waxy potato – I’d have paid top dollar for a proper spud.

have spotted that branding potatoes as Irish is a good sales technique; now let’s give the world a taste of the real thing.

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Stress authenticity. Some people dislike dirty potatoes. But I’ve been told the only way to tell home-grown veg, for example at a farmers’ market, is by the dirt. Dirt is authentic, and that dirty spud connects us with our own environment.

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Highlight spuds as a fusion ingredient. I thought I knew potatoes, but foreign friends showed me ways of using mash in other traditions. A Russian taught me how to make little dumplings called

pelmeni

; an Italian her version of dumplings called gnocchi; and a Jewish friend a stuffed dough snack called a knish. Let’s not forget, potatoes were one of the first globalised foods.

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Cherish them as simple, whole foods. In his book

In Defense of Food,

Michael Pollan

offers this advice: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.” The spud certainly passes that test.

Spuds are a national speciality, like Champagne for the French or chocolates for the Belgians. They connect us with the land. If we were Italian, we’d devote a harvest festival to them. They sustained us in the past, when we had nothing else. They’re part of us and our story. Let’s keep them where they belong: on our plates – and in our hearts.

marytfeely@eircom.net

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