Tuesday 14 January 2020

Celtic Roots Craic 63 – Roast potatoes, chips 'n' mash!

Fried farls of potato bread

There is one thing that people always associate with Ireland, although they actually originated in the Americas. The Inca Indians in Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes back around 5,000 B.C.

Then, in 1536, the Spanish Conquistadors conquered Peru, discovered the potato, and brought it to Europe. Sir Walter Raleigh brought potatoes to Ireland in 1589, on his 40,000 acre estate near Cork. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But why is the potato associated so much with Ireland? Well, the main reason is that during Penal times most of the Irish were poor tenant farmers. They grew wheat, barley and oats on their smallholdings, but it took the sale of most of that to pay the high rents.

So, they cultivated a small area of their land in potatoes and mostly they lived on that – which is why the Irish Famine in 1845 and subsequent years had such a devastating affect. The potato blight that destroyed the crops affected Britain and Europe, also, but the people there were not so dependent on the potato for survival – they had bread and meat to live on.
Did you know that all through the famine years, Ireland continued to export cattle, sheep, pigs, wheat and barley in great quantities. Profits came first, unfortunately, and the poor people found their only means of sustenance turned into a rotting mush. Many of them tried to survive on grass and often whole families were found dead with grass stains on their mouths. 

Capitalism and a lack of concern – ‘sure they were only Irish Catholics, weren’t they?’ – caused the deaths of about a million people! Actually, though, quite a few Protestants – mainly Presbyterians – died also. There was no international famine aid, or emotional TV appeals in those days!
So, you’d think we’d have gone right off potatoes by now, wouldn’t ye? Not a bit of it! We were up in Donegal a few years ago and decided to have a meal in Buncrana, in the old railway station, there, which has become a restaurant and pub. 

While we were waiting for a table there was a local boy making a mobile phone call home to his wife. He’d obviously stopped in for a pint, and – by the look of him, he intended to have a few more – but was reassuring his wife, ‘I’ll be home for the spuds, now, so I will. Oh, aye, I’ll be home for the spuds!’ 

When he actually arrived home ‘for the spuds’ is anybody’s guess and whether they were still fit to eat, or stone cold, or burnt, or maybe eaten by the dog – we’ll never know. Perhaps not the recipe for domestic harmony, eh?
Speaking of recipes, I said we were down in Dublin recently – for the first time in a few years. We had a meal in Gallagher’s Boxty House in Templebar and, of course, we both had boxty. It’s a sort of pancake made with potato and then filled with chicken, beef, or whatever, in a sauce – very tasty! You can get it in Belfast, too, on the Belfast Barge – a floating restaurant on the River Lagan. 
In nearly any Irish restaurant you can get a ‘feed a’ champ’, which is mashed potato with scallions mixed in (spring onions, if you’re English). By the way, did you know that the word, scallion, came from the town of Ashquelon, in Israel? Another variation on champ is something called colcannon, which is mashed potato mixed with cabbage. That’s very tasty as well.
But something you’re unlikely to find south of the border is potato bread. That’s an Ulster thing – a vital component of the Ulster Fry, in fact. If ye’ve never had an Ulster Fry, then ye’d better get yerself over here and try one – but maybe not if yer suffering from heart disease already! They also do potato bread in Scotland.
When I was a wee nipper my mother used to make soda bread, wheaten, treacle bread and potato bread – all baked on the griddle set on top of a gas stove. You take a wean a’ cooked potatoes and mash them up, add a wee taste a’ flour and a teaspoonful of salt and spread the mix out on a flour-covered board, or baking sheet. Then you roll the mix out thin and place it on the griddle, with some flour sprinkled on it, cut it into four pieces and cook it dry. You can always fry it up in the pan with oil, or butther, later.
My mother also made a variation on this called potato apple – potato bread with chopped apple mixed in – mmm, delicious! It’s very hard to find anywhere that sells potato apple these days, but ye can easily make it yerself.
The other potato thing we love is potato crisps – or potato chips, if yer American! They were supposedly invented by a black American chef, in Saratoga, New York – one George Crum, I kid you not! – but actually, they first appeared in an English cook book by William Kitchiner in 1817. 
Of course, an Irishman got in on the act – Joe Murphy – who else? known as ‘Spud Murphy’ – who started up the Tayto company in Ireland and is credited with inventing Cheese ’n’ Onion flavoured crisps – my favourite! The Tayto factory in Northern Ireland is inside a big stone castle, down in Tandragee, Co. Armagh. I actually once drove a lorry – a truck – right inside the castle to make a delivery. Oh, and by the way, not far from Dublin we have the Tayto Theme Park!
So, we Irish do love our spuds – purties, praties – whatever! You’ve heard of the Irish mixed grill, haven’t you? – roast potatoes, chips and mash?

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