Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Super Spuds, Sophia and The Sex Pistols

Last year a tabloid newspaper revealed that Debbie Taylor, a 30 year old hotel chambermaid from Essex had been eating nothing but crisps for ten years. Previously 22 year old Gina Gough was also reported to have been living on crisps - this time for three years (in her case it became an issue when she was hospitalised for gall stone issues). Before that again, another newspaper revealed that Faye Campbell of Stowmarket had spent fifteen years eating just chips.

Stranger still is that the accompanying pictures of these ladies didn’t reveal the spotty heffalumps we might come to expect from an exclusive diet of spuds and saturated fat, but mostly rather svelte and attractive types.

Giz a crip! Living off nothing but crisps doesn't create the expected heffalumps

We Irish have been here before - albeit without the saturates. Before the potato famine of 1847, a quarter of us (more than two million people) ate nothing but potatoes - usually boiled in their skins, salted and consumed with milk and sometimes mixed with wild greens. In all, around 60% of the populace used it as their main food staple before the potato blight and the resulting famine kicked the habit for us.

By the middle of the 19th century, Irish adults ate between 3.5 and 7 kilos of spuds a day. This happened not because we love potatoes, but because the land was held by the perfidious British invaders and they exported all the other crops from the country. All that was left for the disenfranchised Irish peasant was what he could grow himself on tiny slivers of land rented from the same British landlord. The spud was by far the most productive grown food available. A half acre could thus feed a family of nine or ten for a year.

Seven kilos of potatoes yesterday - 19th Century daily Irish diet

Generations of families could also do this because the humble spud is the nearest thing this planet has to being a “complete” food - lacking only calcium, which we supplemented in those days with milk and greens, the latter often derived from foraged plants like nettles or dandelions. Our famine, which saw a million starve to death and the remaining population reduced by half through emigration, was unique in history in that it was an artificially formed one. The country grew many types of grains and other foods and farmed beef. But these were exported to Britain. Only the potato failed in those years.

Giz a Crip! Statues in Dublin commemorating the Great Famine of the 1840's

An average serving of potatoes contains 21% of the daily recommended amount of potassium, 12% of fibre, 45% of Vitamin C, 10% of Vitamin B6, and 4 grams of protein; while only containing 100 calories per 148g (1 serving size potato). Back in the eighties, National Geographic magazine report explained how the spud was a “miracle food” with an extensive report/study entitled “The Incredible Potato.”

The report notes that by the early 19th century, our spud fueled peasantry were noted as being among europe’s tallest, healthiest and fastest growing. Elswhere in Europe bread and cheese based diets made people shorter and more prone to diseases like rickets emanating from vitamin C shortages.

So its quite easy to see how, that even despite the Famine, we Irish haven’t learned our lesson. Most of us still eat spuds three or four times a week. An unnatural percentage of the population profess to outright adoration and indeed when it comes to answering those “desert island” questions we’ve all been asked at some point in our lives, my own standard replies are: The Grapes of Wrath, Sophia Loren, cold milk, Never Mind the Bollocks and mashed potato with butter and salt.

And the sheer productiveness of the spud means it's easy to buy into the spud miracle when you have an allotment and you’re dealing with a plant that produces more food per square foot than any other. When it comes to world staples it produces four times more food than wheat or rice from the same ground which is why the potato’s usage is increasing in China and India in particular.

Peas from one bed: a pudding bowl full (after two hour’s podding); carrots from one bed - nothing again because of carrot fly; cabbage from one bed - ten or twelve heads, spuds from one bed - four stones - the weight of a child.

Sophia and mash equals paradise island

This illustrates just how ridiculously easy it is: In May I took one third of a bag of shop bought rooster potatoes (they cost a fiver) that had gone all sprouty in our kitchen and rather than chuck them in the compost, I took them up to Plot 34.There I took five minutes to plant them in a prepared bed which had been made up for celeriac, but was now empty on account of this year’s celeriac seeds failing to go all sprouty.

Last week, a tentantive pitchfork rummage yielded more than twenty perfect middle sized potatoes from just over one square foot of ground - enough for two dinners for two adults and two children in our house. At forty square feet of ground in that bed, that’s roughly eighty family meals for doing sweet F.A. And boiled in their skins with butter and salt they tasted absolutely supreme.

In what has been generally a bad year for produce, this year I played spud roulette and won - blight means you always take a gamble. This year in addition to the sprouty supermarket roosters, I planted a similar sized bed King Edward seed potatoes, another of Maris Pipers and a smaller bed of Lumpers, a heritage strain and the very spud that failed in the Great Famine - the one we’d all been living on. Back at home I’ve got spuds arrayed here and there through my raised rockery.

In my first year on our virgin allotment complex, most growers went heavy on spuds as they are known to “break up” new ground making it easier for planting other crops in subsequent years. The blight hit and most lost everything. Dithane, the typical copper based blight spray is not good for anyone or anything and in any case, the rain washes it off. And rain is plentiful in blight weather.

 I planted at least two middling sized beds of spuds the following year and ever since. Despite  getting blight about 50% of the time, I’ve been lucky to catch it early and cut the stalks back to the ground early in every infestation, thus preventing it getting into the tubers. This left me with small to middle sized spuds in those years but a crop nonetheless.

Potato Clamping for badly drawn types (see below)
This year for the first time I’ll be looking into “clamping” spuds to store them, if I can a hold of some straw. Leaving them in the ground until you need them is fine but I find that over winter about 40% get hit by pests including tunnelling slugs (how to they do that?) which seem to enter the spud via a tiny hole, eat themselves large and then they can’t get out again. These can produce a nasty surprise so always weigh your spuds in your hands and throw away the unfeasibly lighter ones or those that “rattle.”

Clamping involves digging a hole, bedding it with straw, heaping up your spuds on it, covering them over with straw and then covering the whole lot with earth. Because if you’re hell bent on eating nothing but spuds - you’ll need them to last the distance and store well. Otherwise it’s down to the chipper for you.

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