Though the distillery was not on my official Canadian Tourism Commission itinerary – through whose good offices I had gotten to PEI in the first place – my ever genial and accommodating PEI guide, Grant, kindly acceded to my hopeful requests and – despite a lot of miles and a lack of time – got me to the distillery on the last day of my visit to the island, where I met the delightful Julie Shore, craft distiller and one half of the couple behind the production of Canada’s first potato vodka.
18lbs of potatoes in one bottle. Weighty stuff, this potato vodka.
Julie Shore was talking me through the process of making potato vodka at the small Prince Edward Distillery that she established in 2008 with her partner Arla Johnson in Hermanville, in the north east of the island. “Our distillery is about distilling the agriculture here on PEI,” said Julie, “and the number one crop is potatoes. That being said, potatoes are the hardest thing to distill – a potato is 80% water, so it takes a lot of potatoes to make a bottle of vodka. My colleagues look at me like I’m crazy to do it.”
After some considerable hiatus – blame life, blame whatever distractions you like – there could be no better day on which to return than on this, my sixth blog birthday.
On exactly this day six years ago – and a Sunday it was too – I found a spud in my garden and – who’da thought – a voice to go with it. Since then, I have passed through one potato, two potato, three potato, four, moved through five potato, six potato, and, with any luck, there will, in the future, be seven potato, more.
The potato – a complex carbohydrate for sure.
That was how Pádraic Óg Gallagher introduced proceedings at an event in Gallagher’s Boxty House to mark the launch of last Friday’s National Potato Day. He’s not wrong, either – if six years of writing about the potato has taught me anything, it is that there is a great deal more to the spud than meets the eye.
So, having spent the last few (admittedly sporadic) posts waxing lyrical on the spuds of Prince Edward Island – a subject with which, I must admit, I’m not quite done yet – it has finally come time to shift focus closer to home – namely to Stradbally in Co. Laois, which plays host to the Electric Picnic this weekend.
Though music may be the big draw for the festival, wander down to the Mindfield area and you’ll find the Theatre of Food, with a diverse program of talks, demos, tastes and debates. And – for those Picnic enthusiasts who actually manage to arrive and get set up by that time – you can catch me (yes, me) opening the weekend’s Theatre of Food proceedings on Friday 29th at 4.30pm with my own little Theatre of Spud, a talk MC’ed by food writer Aoife Carrigy.
I’ll be looking at the place – or places, even – that the potato occupies in Irish food culture, from your Mammy’s boiled spuds, to the devotion that inspires a collection of 200+ heritage varieties of potato, to the all important bread and butter layering of a crisp sandwich. I’ll also be discussing just how many ways we Irish have of describing our potatoes (of which more below).
When I’m done with that, I’ll be wandering off to check out what the Dublin Urban Farm crew are doing with their roving Thank Potato exhibition in the Picnic’s Global Green area. Back in the Theatre of Food, on Sunday 31st at 12.30pm, I’ll be on stage again, in the knowledgeable – to say nothing of opinionated – company of Ernie Whalley, Leslie Williams and Mei Chin, participating in what should be a tummy rumbling discussion on Food in Literature, moderated by Caroline Byrne.
It is, apparently, a matter of some debate as to whether Eskimo languages really have an unusually large number of words for snow, but it is an oft-quoted example when discussing how a language may reflect the environment in which it has developed. We use language to describe what surrounds and affects us, so it seems only natural that the ways in which a language is used to describe a given entity can tell us something of its cultural significance. So it is, I think, with the Irish language and potatoes.
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They say we produce the most potatoes per person in the world.
So Stanley MacDonald commented casually as we sat in the café at Prince Edward Island‘s potato museum, munching through cinnamon rolls (which, needless to remark, featured a little added potato in the dough). With 145,000 residents on PEI and a production of around 1.1 million tonnes annually, the assertion sounded perfectly plausible – an output of 7.5+ tonnes per person is a whole lot of spuds in anyone’s book.
With production in such quantities and with potatoes such an integral part of island life, it’s no great surprise that PEI should be home to a potato museum, one of the few in the world – reason enough for yours truly, and for the generally spud inclined, to visit. Head ‘up west’ to the community of O’Leary in the heart of PEI potato territory and you’ll find it – a giant spud marks the spot.
PEI, it’s potato country here – it’s a big part of who we are as an island, a big part of who we are as a cultureKendra Mills, Marketing Director, PEI Potato Board
The first thing, the very first thing that Grant, my endlessly amiable guide did when I landed on Prince Edward Island – before lunch, before a cup of tea, even – was to whisk me off to the offices of the PEI Potato Board. He explained later that, while he had escorted many visitors around the island, each with their own agenda, I was the first he had encountered with quite such a singular focus on spuds. And I wondered – as a dedicated potatophile might – why that would be, for here on PEI – potato capital of Canada, Idaho of the north – there is an awful lot for the spud-minded to see.
Well now, this post has been a long time coming. Having been sucked into the black hole that is house renovation, the Daily Spud has become closer to the monthly spud, while prospective posts have languished on the proverbial back burner. Now that I have acquired an actual back burner – along with the kitchen to go with it, and of which more anon – it’s time to fire things up again. First stop PEI – Prince Edward Island – which, through the good offices of the Canadian Tourism Commission, I had the great pleasure of visiting back in May.
I reckon that the Irish settlers who came to PEI in the 1700s and 1800s – all 10,000 or more of them, according to the Irish Settlers’ Memorial in PEI’s capital, Charlottetown – probably felt at home. Or at least as at home as you can feel when you’re several thousand miles away on the other side of the Atlantic.
There are many things you might find yourself doing on a Saturday morning – being a guest, this past Saturday, of broadcasting legend Dave Fanning on his weekend radio show on RTE’s 2FM was one of the less usual (and, as it turns out, more enjoyable) of those things. I was on the show to talk about these lads:
It was a topic prompted by this recent article in the Irish Independent (where I also managed to get my spake in) and, in turn, by no less than the recently held World Chip Championships in Limerick. Though it’s unlike me to miss such a momentous spud event, I did get to meet chip enthusiast Lema Murphy – declared winner of the Champion-Chips with her triple cooked beauties, served with baked bean and bacon sauce and deep fried egg yolk – and who was also a guest on Dave’s show. You can listen back to our chip chat on the RTE radio player, from about 1h 18m 30 in.
And if you were wondering how I could manage to miss such a thing as the World Chip Championships, it was owing to the fact that I was out of the country conducting some international chip investigations of my own…
It would be a slight exaggeration to say that I went all the way to Toronto just to have chips.
In fact (get me!) I travelled to Canada, through the good offices of the Canadian Tourism Commission, principally to visit Prince Edward Island, where they do a very good line in all things spud (and of which you’ll hear more over the coming weeks). However, having taken the opportunity to visit Canada’s biggest city – and ever keen to broaden my spud horizons – I did make a point of having chips (or fries, to use the local lingo) when I got there. Not just any old fries, though, but that particularly Canadian creation, poutine.
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Gloriously big and gloriously bonkers.
That’s what I thought when news reached my ears last Thursday that plans were afoot in Carrick on Shannon to break the record for the world’s biggest (or rather, heaviest) potato pancake. I’ll admit that I didn’t know such a record officially existed (but, according to the Guinness Book of Records it does, covering all regional variations of potato pancake, of which there are many) and, up to last Friday at least, it had stood at a rather hefty 200kg – which is a lot of pancake in anyone’s book.
The organisers of the Carrick Carnival – and chief among them Chef Sham Hanifa of the charming Cottage Restaurant in Jamestown, Co. Leitrim – decided that they wanted to go several kilos better than that by (as you do) making a supersized batch of boxty, Leitrim’s local take on the potato pancake. Sham, in turn, enlisted the help of Mr. Leitrim Boxty himself, Pádraic Óg Gallagher of Gallagher’s Boxty House, to assist in the construction of a true boxty behemoth.
And so it was that last Friday, I took myself off to the northwest and to a covered area beside the quay in Carrick on Shannon, where potatoes were being peeled, grated, mashed and mixed on a grand scale. This is how the record attempt went down.
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