The humble spud has been not just a staple of our diet but of Irish culture for centuries. John Corbett looks back to a time before commercial farming and large machinery, when most farmers grew just enough potatoes for themselves on the family farm.
Have you ever been in love me boys,
Or have you felt the pain?
I’d rather be in jail meself
Than be in love again.
The girl I loved was beautiful.
I’ll have you all to know
And I met her in the garden
Where the praties grow.
These are the opening lines of a song by Johnnie Patterson, the Clare comic and composer, who penned many well-known melodies in the 19th century. Subsequent verses extol the beauty of the lady and describe the courtship, which resulted in a happy marriage between the pair in question.
Although I’ve spent lots of time in potato gardens, I regard them as unlikely venues for courtship or romance. Working in them involved lots of back bending, tired bones, and sore hands, and fanciful notions were far from our minds on such occasions.
Happy-ever-after encounters weren’t known to happen in the potato fields in our neighbourhood.
THE ORIGIN OF THE POTATO
Solanum tuberosum is the scientific name for what most of us call a potato. The potato is one of the most popular foods in Ireland. Although the exact date of its origin is a mystery, it goes back thousands of years. It’s believed to have originated in South America, in places like Columbia, Chile and Peru.
However, it only came to Ireland in the late 16th century, courtesy of British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh. Ever since then it has been part of our regular diet and that’s not surprising when one considers its attributes. A raw potato consists of 80 per cent water and 20 percent solids. It contains a wide selection of nutrients including vitamins A, B, & C; Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin, Calcium, Phosphorus, Zinc, Iron and Iodine. And no Fat.
Is it any wonder then that some nutritionists have described as ‘the near perfect food’? Our parents used to say that dinner without potatoes wasn’t a dinner at all. Even in the fast food era, it’s the main ingredient of french fries, which of course are far less nutritious than the original ‘humble spud.’
When we were going to school, early potatoes, grown in gardens close to the house, were a great treat. Butter, cream, and onions were usually added. This mouth-watering delicacy was known as Calley or Colcannon. As far as we were concerned nothing could match it. Many of you will be familiar with the song recorded by the Black Family, which indicates how precious this dish was to young people.
Did you ever eat colcannon,
When you were going to school,
Tucked beneath your little oxter
With your book, your slate and rule?
And when Teacher wasn’t looking,
A great big bite you’d take.
From the creamy flavoured pastry
That your mother used to make.
Oh you did, so you did,
So did he and so did I,
And the more I think about it
The nearer I’m to cry.
Oh weren’t they the happy times
When troubles we knew not?
And our mothers made colcannon,
In the little skillet pot.
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own