Business, Finance & Economics

Ireland returns to an old love: the potato


DUBLIN — Ireland is renewing an old affair with the British Queen, the Duke of York and King Edward — not the royals who in bygone days ruled over the island, but varieties of potato. The humble tuber on which the Irish once relied for vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber and carbohydrates is making its way back into gardens and onto plates.


It is part of a back-to-the-land trend, as the needs of the recession coincide with a growing passion for organic food. Where dinner parties were once dominated by conversation about property values and how everyone was getting rich, now the topic is more likely to be about the economic crisis and the best methods for growing fruit and vegetables.

The week of St. Patrick’s Day is the traditional time of year for planting potatoes and many lawns in Irish backyards have been cut back of late to make way for vegetable plots. Apartment dwellers get in on the act by renting allotments on municipal land, which come at a nominal fee. Demand for council allotments has been so heavy this year that there are long waiting lists, and farmers are renting out vegetable patches to city folk for up to $400 a year.

In the Stoneybatter district of Dublin, where houses have small concrete yards, a former New Yorker, Kaethe Burt-O’Dea converted an empty lot into a very successful communal vegetable garden four years ago. Other districts are now following her example.

Anyone looking for an Irish business in which to invest during these hard times might do well to look at companies making garden sheds or selling seeds. Launching a campaign this month for the Irish householder to return to the soil, Mike Neary, manager of horticulture for the Irish Food Board, confirmed that, now more than ever, “the public have expressed interest in growing their own vegetables, fruits and flowers.”

With the trend towards organic food, farmers’ markets have become popular in Ireland, and this has made people more aware that they could get produce of similar quality by growing their own.

Further, publicity about the carbon footprint of imported food, such as early potatoes from Cyprus, and knowledge of a world-wide food shortage, have also begun to impact on the consciousness of a nation used to buying all its food products off the supermarket shelves.

The solanum tuberosum, otherwise known as the Irish potato, has been receiving particular attention as it flourishes so well in Ireland’s cool climate.

The Irish love their "spuds," though the notion that they live on dishes like colcannon, made from mashed potatoes and cabbage, is more a figment of foreign imagination than a reality of the Irish dinner table. They are more likely to eat their potatoes in the form of french fries, or roasted with a leg of lamb on Sundays, or boiled with meat and two veg on weekdays, or au gratin in fancy restaurants. The potato is also used for the triangular potato pancake, or “taty bread” that is a staple of the famed Ulster fry, otherwise known as “a heart attack on a plate.”

In the mid-18th century, because of a lack of genetic diversity, almost the entire Irish potato crop was devastated by a fungus-like blight, resulting in the Great Famine of 1845-1852 during which an estimated million people died from starvation and a million more emigrated. There are now 150 varieties of potatoes that can be grown in Irish conditions. County Mayo horticulturalist David Langford demonstrated this variety at the annual potato day in Rossinver, County Leitrim on March 15.

After Ireland’s best-loved celebrity gardener Dermot O’Neill promoted a species of blight-resistant potato called Sapro Miro on the popular Friday night television program, “The Late Late Show,” on March 6, every garden center in the country was sold out of them by the following Monday. O’Neill also recommended a potato called Lady Christi that can be grown in a small plastic barrel by anyone without access to a garden or allotment.

Potatoes with such aristocratic names cause no problems for patriotic Irish consumers who might take offence at British royal titles. As a Kerry farmer once famously said, when asked about his love of British Queens, “Sure, I boil the ‘divil’ out of them before I eat them.”

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