There’s a section in journalist and food critic Jay Rayner’s new book, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, which discusses the notion of comparative advantage. This is where, he explains, by dint of labour costs, climatic or other considerations, certain countries can produce certain goods better and more cheaply than elsewhere – he points to iPhones made in China and, foodwise, among other things, to crops grown in the corn belt of the Midwestern United States.
It’s part of his assault on those who blindly assume that local-is-best when it comes to food (people whom he also suspects are the proud possessors of said iPhones); his attempt, as he puts it, to “kick ten tons of crap out of the local food movement.” His point? It’s not that locally produced food is suddenly off the shopping list – there will always be cases where it’s the best choice we can make, and not just for reasons of taste, but because it’s also about food security and supporting local economies – but that local doesn’t always equate to sustainable and that imported foods – and the large-scale agriculture that may produce them – aren’t necessarily bad.
It makes for a very different kind of water cooler conversation.
Rows of former water cooler canisters, stacked in pairs, have been re-purposed as potato planters, the lower canisters acting as individual water reservoirs for the ones above, each of which houses a different variety of potato plant. There are 160 varieties in all – sourced from Dave Langford’s heritage potato collection – and which now peep, to varying degrees, above their funky plastic parapets. Stand around these water-vessels-turned-potato-pots for any length of time, especially with Andrew Douglas in the vicinity, and your conversation is likely to be punctuated with words like recycling, upcycling, community, education, employment and urban renewal.
I would hazard a guess – for those in Ireland and the UK at any rate – that there’s hardly a man, woman or child who has not, at some time, been touched by the life’s work of one John Clarke. Certainly, if you’ve ever savoured a bag of fat, golden, creamy-on-the-inside, vinegared-on-the-outside chip-shop chips, what you’ve eaten owes a certain debt to this unassuming man of Antrim.
To say that Mr. Clarke (1889-1980) was a potato breeder of note is somewhat of a understatement. Though he left school at the age of 12 and had no formal scientific or horticultural training, he was responsible for the development of 33 certified varieties of potato, most of which bear the prefix Ulster, and some of which were subsequently cross-bred to produce varieties very familiar to us: Maris Piper, long the potato of choice for the chipper, is a second generation (or F2) descendant of a John Clarke variety, Ulster Knight, and most of you will have eaten Maris Pipers, even if, at the time, their name was a mite less important than their role as a welcome source of soakage.
New was, without question, the operative word this week.
There was new beer, with Oxman, a chocolatey, treacly brown ale, brewed in England using Irish oats, by those nomadic brewers from the Brown Paper Bag Project and launched, in both bottle and cask forms, in L. Mulligan Grocer’s on Wednesday; there was the new and beautifully shot quarterly food magazine, Feast, launched by Donal Skehan, celebrating seasonal foods and sensational producers; there was the stylish new video recipe series, Forkful TV, launched by Aoife McElwain of I Can Has Cook; there was a new perspective on an old drink (not to mention an awful lot of bottles) at a gathering organised by wine writers John Wilson and Raymond Blake to celebrate World Sherry Day; there was the announcement of the first tour by new enterprise, Irish Food Tours – set up by chefs Zack Gallagher and Wendy White Kavanagh – which will give participants a real taste of Kilkenny on the weekend of July 5th (details here) with visits to local food producers and cultural sights, and bookable now at what I reckon is a very reasonable all-in cost for meets, eats and sleeps.
A lot of newness to be going on with, then.
Most notably, from my point of view though, there were new potatoes.
Specifically, I had new season Irish potatoes sent my way by Dublin-based produce suppliers, Country Crest. Given the god awful slowness of the growing season this year, I have to admit surprise at local new potatoes making an appearance in May at all, even with crops grown under glass, as these first-of-the-season spuds would have been.
Dunno about you, but I avoided Pinterest for the longest time.
Not because it didn’t look good – quite the reverse, in fact. A world of virtual pin boards, teeming with pretty pictures and inspiring visuals, covering almost any subject you care to mention, Pinterest had (and has) a lot going for it in the looks department. No, I figured, you see, that I couldn’t afford to become seduced by another social network, that I should be strong in the face of its visual charm, that I should, in a word, resist, but resistance – as any reader of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will know – is useless.
This is especially true of Pinterest, with its image-based format so supremely suited to the short attention span of the average netizen. Once I had succumbed – for succumb I did – blog posts became the stuff of potatoey pin boards, making years of spudly content visible at a single glance and demonstrating that it was the waiting that had, in fact, been useless.
Last week, you see, I was all about the heady heights of the Ballymaloe Lit Fest.
There was me and there was Madhur Jaffrey and the world was a-glow with possibilities. First stop, aloo gobi, next stop, who knows where.
This week, there is cheese and onion chocolate. A place to which I didn’t particularly want to go.
Yet here it is (or, at least, there it was in my local Centra), the union, in a single wrapper, of Tayto cheese & onion crisps and milk chocolate.
Now, the first thing to know is that, in Ireland, the combination of crisps and chocolate is, to use that most nondescript of descriptions, a thing. I have – and I know I am not alone in this – enjoyed meals of Tayto cheese & onion and Cadbury’s dairy milk, usually in that order and most memorably when my Da would bring both items home as a treat. Perhaps a chocolate bar with embedded Tayto was an inevitability but – guess what? – that sweet chocolatey ooze in your gob smacks mostly of onion and, with that, all desire to let it linger disappears.
Afterward, it tastes like you’ve downed a bag of Tayto, which seems unfair, given that you haven’t had the pleasure. The fundamental problem, I think, is that the crisp-chocolate balance is all wrong (well that, and the fact that the chocolate isn’t great to begin with). The real joy of crisps and chocolate is that you get to have the satisfying savoury crunch of the crisp followed by some silky chocolate sweetness. This bar manages, sadly, to rob you of both.
The Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine should come with a health warning: attending this event may leave you lost for words. This turns out to be a somewhat debilitating state of affairs when faced with the prospect of scraping together a few Spud Sunday syllables, which come to you here in a delayed Monday form (for which delay said LitFest can also be blamed). It is also testament to the world class calibre of this weekend’s line up which – with a Madhur Jaffrey here, a Jancis Robinson there and a Claudia Roden seemingly everywhere – gathered together the great and the good of food and wine writing and served a beguiling pick and mix of demos, tastings, walks and talks in the beautiful surroundings of Ballymaloe. With topics ranging from foraging to fermentation to food writing itself, there was no shortage of stimulation for both creative and digestive juices, and I expect I’ll be digesting what I’ve seen and heard for quite some time to come.
And of course (before you ask) there were spuds. Whether it was learning from Madhur Jaffrey the secrets of Aloo Gobi (which she described as a most beloved North Indian dish) or applauding Matthew Fort as he decried the use of humble to describe what is, after all, the most noble of vegetables, there were spud references aplenty. For those, it seems, I am never at a loss.
Well now, this is embarassing.
There I go, week in, week out, presenting the potato as a force for good when, all the while, there is a dark side to consider. And no, I’m not talking about blighted blackstuff or the evils of french fried excess. No, though I do so grudgingly, I feel I must, in the grand historical scheme of things, include Spud the Usurper in the catalog of culinary villains.
It was last weekend’s Slow Roots Symposium in Sandbrook House, Co. Carlow, that put my potato-pushing into perspective, specifically the presentation by culinary arts students from the Cork Institute of Technology of a paper entitled: A Study of Irish Food Culture before the Arrival of the Potato.