Sunday 19 November 2017

The not so humble spud

Richard Orr with Rozanne Stevens
Richard Orr with Rozanne Stevens

Rozanne Stevens

In the 15 years that I have lived, worked and written in Ireland, I have never written about potatoes. Clearly I had just never met the right spud.

Until along came the delectable Comber Early potato, which I had the pleasure of tasting with lashings of local Abernethy butter when I interviewed Richard Orr, a local Comber potato farmer.

Richard's family has been farming potatoes in Comber for generations and is one of the group of farmers who have worked tirelessly for years to get the Comber Early potato recognised with PGI status, which was awarded last year. This is really big news for Ireland.

PGI Status stands for Protected Geographical Indication: this means that the Comber potato is protected under EU law, the same protection that products such as Champagne and Parma ham enjoy.

Comber Earlies are harvested from the start of May to the end of July.

The Comber Early has a unique appearance, texture and taste. They are quite small in size (30-70mm), round or oval in shape and are soft and creamy white inside. You don't peel these potatoes as the skin is thin and loose and really tasty. The Comber Earlies are at their best steamed or boiled and served simply with butter.

The PGI designated area is dominated by Strangford Lough, the largest inlet in the British Isles (150km2), situated on the east coast of Co Down, Northern Ireland.

The lough's rich, dark soil nourishes the potatoes. The parent material of the soil surrounding the northern end of the Lough is Triassic red sandstone and gravel.

This means that the soil is lighter and free draining. This allows the soil to dry more quickly and warm up quicker than soil in other parts of Northern Ireland. This is really important for drainage. Protection offered by the Ards peninsula to the east and the Mourne mountains to the south means that the climate is warmer than other parts of the North.

Even though potatoes don't originally come from Ireland, we are synonymous them. In 'The History and Social Influence of the Potato' (Redcliffe N. Salaman, 1949), it says that: "The potato has, in the minds of more than half the world, an inalienable and time-honoured association with Ireland . . . For good or ill, Ireland has become the classical, though adopted, home of potato culture, and in no other country can its influence on the domestic and economic life of the people be studied to a greater advantage."

Potatoes came to Ireland from an area between Bolivia and Peru, and luckily the geography of Ireland is particularly suited to growing them. In 1657, the English Botanist William Coles noted that: "Potatoes . . . have been planted in many of our gardens (in England), where they decay rather than increase; but the soyle of Ireland doth so well agree with them, that they grow there so plentifully that there be whole fieldes overrun with them."

The history of the designated Comber area is intertwined with the history of two Ulster-Scots families, the Hamiltons and the Montgomerys. In 1605, James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery (later to become Viscount Montgomery of the Ards) led a private plantation venture from Scotland. It is the area of this venture that, to this day, remains the most famous area in the North for growing potatoes.

It is the area of the Hamilton lands and the Montgomery lands, including Comber, Greyabbey and Newtownards, where New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies are still grown. The historical link with the original plantation venture is evident in that there are still a number of Hamiltons growing New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies.

There is great excitement to welcome the first harvest of the Comber Earlies, which is due this week, just in time for the Comber Potato Festival on Saturday, June 29. The festival will take place in Comber Square and will include activities for kids and families.

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