The first of the new potatoes do not mark a milestone for most of us anymore
THANKS Heavens, the famine is over. At long last, this season’s new potatoes have arrived on the market and while they mark the essential horticultural milestone of the year for some of us, they don’t taste a bit like the new potatoes we once knew. And they cost a small fortune too. I paid €6 for half a dozen middle sized Homeguards during the week. I tell you, Walter Raleigh wouldn’t be one bit impressed!
However I also have to concede the sad fact that our love affair with the humble spud seems to be well and truly over. The first of the new potatoes do not mark a milestone for most of us anymore. We’ve filled ourselves with pasta and imported sweet potato and we’ve learned how to stand on our own two feet without needing a British Queen or a Champion to sustain us anymore in the early summer. Some kids don’t even know that their crisps originated in the ground.
I think I was the only person in the country who went into a mad panic in the first week in June when the new spuds still hadn’t arrived from Wexford to temporary roadside stalls in Limerick and Tipperary. I don’t mean any disrespect now, but I found myself uncharacteristically assailed by race memories of the Famine. Then I remembered that Wexford had been particularly badly hit by Emma in the Spring. ‘Who the hell is Emma,’ the local greengrocer asked when I suggested that she might be the reason why the new potatoes were particularly late this year. We have short memories: that’s all I can say.
Now, I know it’s not very epicurean in this day and age to be yearning for new potatoes. But I have a particular fondness for them because they remind me of my childhood before pasta was invented and rice was a dessert, and when everything - apart from the occasional dose of castor oil - tasted fresh and delicious. There’s no sense like taste to open the floodgates of memory. To this day, despite all the adventures my palate has enjoyed over the years, I know that if I was offered my last meal in a condemned cell, it would simply be a dish of new potatoes boiled until they discarded their jackets voluntarily and then mashed up with a sprinkling of salt and a knob of butter. I think I’d die happily afterwards.
Sowing the potatoes was a big event in our house and the first real assurance that summer was nigh. I insisted on sewing a drill myself once to impress my father with a work ethic which I knew he suspected was missing from my genetic make-up. Afterwards, he praised me from a height – from a headland actually – and when my back was turned, proceeded to re-lay the seed in a straight line. I could never draw a straight line, not to talk of sowing a drill of spuds in a straight line. There was also the dire prospect that they might come up in Australia, because apparently I had pointed them in the absolutely wrong direction.
Nevertheless, that particular drill became known as my drill and when we dug them up in the summer, they were an absolute wonder. They were described as “balls of flour” when they were eventually dished up on the dinner table, and I guarded them jealously from neighbours who wanted to try them. I was as proud as a peacock. Maybe I should have been a horticulturalist!
In those memorable times, before the country was hit by an epidemic of obesity, we had competitions to find who could eat the biggest number of new potatoes in one sitting. One neighbour was said to have downed 20 in one go once, but everyone suspected that he was prone to exaggeration, not to talk of one-upmanship. Such indulgences would be frowned on now and condemned by the obesity police. But the strange thing is that the man who ate the 20 new potatoes, never had, as they’d say, ‘a pick on him’.
But you can see why I couldn’t wait for the first of the new potatoes to arrive and why I was a bit apprehensive when they were a couple of weeks late. They represent for me a sense of continuity. They may not taste as good or even look anything like their predecessors, but even with the mercury soaring as I write, the summer just wouldn’t be same without them.