Monday 20 November 2017

Country Matters: Pressing in those 'saintly' tubers

Patrick Kavanagh was gloomy about potatoes in The Great Hunger where the peasant is tied to his few acres and “the cows and horses breed/And the potato seed/Gives a bud and roots and rots” (Stock picture)
Patrick Kavanagh was gloomy about potatoes in The Great Hunger where the peasant is tied to his few acres and “the cows and horses breed/And the potato seed/Gives a bud and roots and rots” (Stock picture)

Joe Kennedy

In South Kerry, as well as finding colours of a richer life, spontaneous acts of kindness from strangers can lead to a triumph from the soil.

On St Patrick's Day, I performed a small ritual of potato planting many miles from there, pressing some tubers into the ground.

One year, by a Kerry garden (I have read) a passing stranger suggested to Felicity Hayes-McCoy that she and her husband might try a potato seed called Tibet.

It proved its durability during a belt of blight which scorched their old reliable Champions.

Ms Hayes-McCoy writes in her delightful book Enough is Plenty (published by The Collins Press) about a year on the Dingle Peninsula where the couple live in an old stone house restored by these enthusiastic kitchen-gardeners who watch for rain on the wind, record the seasons and seek out the past.

I have had my potato growing adventures but there has been the occasional season missed in the early planting exercise, usually because of an itinerant lifestyle.

But we return, sometimes spontaneously.

Two seasons back I had helped an enthusiastic new allotment holder, a couple of fairly respectable ridges of Sharpe's Express rising with quiet slog, from soil, I felt, almost as bleak and compacted as brick-clay.

I had thought of some lines by Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky - who had looked out on Sandymount Strand with our own late lamented Laureate Seamus Heaney - and who remembered the fields of Mother Russia with stubborn clods clinging to his crusted boots and horses "snapping at rusted harrows". I remember horses from my youth, patient between shafts, with the fertiliser being forked off the moving cart, or dumped to be wheeled in barrowfuls for spreading.

In a sea-cliff field the dung-hill stuff was a bonus to the seaweed or 'woar' hauled up in sacks from the rocky shore below.

Patrick Kavanagh was gloomy about potatoes in The Great Hunger where the peasant is tied to his few acres and "the cows and horses breed/And the potato seed/Gives a bud and roots and rots".

That's finality. But the pommes de terre break roundly through the brown crumble in necklaces of pearls.

John Stewart Collis, Dubliner and philosopher, worked in England as a farm labourer during World War II and produced a seminal work - The Worm Forgives the Plough - remaining conscious of the potato's neglect in literature.

There was praise for the flower and leaf but the poor tuber barely got into the melody - except, I recall, in the Gershwin brothers' music sheets, with some juggling of vowels, "potato, potato, tomato, tomato" etc.

Weight-watching folk once viewed the poor spud disparagingly - but now all realise that the vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals: vitamin B1 (thiamin) for healthy hearts, plus folic acid, potassium, vitamin B6 for red blood cells and the nervous and immune systems - and to combat asthma and diabetes. I'm off now to the garden shed to search an allotment bag for the last of old rusty redskins, caked in clay and great balls of flour!

Sunday Independent

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