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David Robbins: A variety mashup makes a king out of your spud patch

The annual Potato Day at the Sonairte Ecological Centre in north Co Dublin has what you might call a niche appeal.

People who are not put off by the word "ecological" in the centre's name will probably baulk at the word "potato".

Indeed, as we drove north on the M1, my mother-in-law remarked from the back seat that it was "a long way to go for some spuds".

I was inclined to agree with her. At that stage, I was lost in a fog of tuber ignorance. I liked spuds -- what Irish person doesn't? -- but knew very little about them.

Then my wife got her allotment, and potato cultivation became a large part of our lives. Excuse me a moment, I must just catch the Met Éireann forecast to see if there's a blight warning.

Sorry, where was I? Yes, allotments. Now, there is no shortage of advice about the best crops to grow in an allotment.

Experts vary about the advantages of kohl rabi over the humble turnip. But they all seem to agree that potatoes are a waste of space.

Grow things that are expensive in the shops, says Monty Don, things such as herbs and salad crops. That's how to save money.

Don't grow things that are cheap, says Alan Titchmarsh, such as potatoes, onions or carrots. If you do, you're using up space that could be used for Gardener's Delight tomatoes.

And yet, it seems the folk memory of the Famine is never very far away. Visit any Irish allotments at this time of year, and you will be greeted by a sea of dark-green foliage of the first early potato crop.

Notice the way I dropped in the phrase "first early" there? I've even picked up the potato patois: "first earlies" are varieties that take just 10 weeks to grow; second earlies take 13 weeks and main crop spuds take about 20 weeks.

The Potato Day was like taking a trip back to the worst days of the Russian gulags. There were knobbly tubers everywhere and the restaurant was serving only spud-based food.

Outside, there was a demonstration on how to dig a lazy-bed for growing spuds. Don't let the name fool you: there's still hard work involved.

Inside, the centrepiece of the occasion was a room full of spuds. Two-hundred varieties of seed potatoes in all their wrinkly glory.

My wife gasped and immediately began planning her summer of spuds. She went on a spending spree, her vegetarian heart full of joy. It was the allotmenteer's equivalent of a day at Kildare Village.

There is, it should be noted, a kind of trendy one-upmanship even in gardening. You can be on-trend, or you can be passé. You can be cool, and you can be naff. You can be classy, or you can be chavvy.

The cool veg growers don't go for those gaudy seed packets with actual photos of what the plant looks like on the front. Oh no, they prefer brown paper envelopes with old-fashioned typography which features the word "heritage".

Heritage varieties are the Farrow & Ball of the veg-growing world. They convey a subtle message: I am not merely growing a few auld lettuces for the salad, you know; I am saving our botanical heritage.

In fairness, the people who save and protect old Irish seed lines are also making a stand against the huge commercial interests that want to control the world's seed banks, but there is a certain Kath Kidson element to it, too.

So, of course, we went for heritage spuds. Gladstones and King Edwards and several others named after British monarchs or prime ministers. We got a black variety just for the sake of inclusiveness.

Potatoes, of course, must be chitted. In our case, this involves placing them lovingly in egg-boxes so they can begin to send out their little shoots in comfort.

We had about 10 egg-boxes worth, all lined up on the kitchen table, carefully labelled and annotated with planting times, depth and preferred soil. I was especially fond of our lumpers -- the variety grown at the time of the Famine.

The dog, however, had other plans. Pipsi, who we suspected of leaving a deposit in the lazy-bed at Sonairte, climbed on to the kitchen table in the dead of night and upset the whole shooting match on to the floor.

Now, I don't know which bed has the first earlies, and which has the main crop, or whether the lumper is in beside the Gladstone (which would have a certain spudly irony), but I do know which bed I'm burying the dog in.

drobbins@independent.ie

Indo Review