Have you ever wondered what would have happened here if we had not got the potato?’
‘We’ve had it a long time. I heard tell it was the Basques who brought it here to this shore when they landed to dry their cod in the summer months.’
‘When was that then?’
‘Oh I don’t know, a long time ago.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘Of course I don’t know, I wasn’t around in them days.’
‘Ah, is that the sixteenth century you are talking about?’
‘I heard tell the potato was brought here by workers from Lancashire in England in sixteenth ten or other.’
‘Raleigh, he brought the potato to Youghal, did he not, in fifteen something or other.’
‘The Basque and the Spaniard knew the potato long before Raleigh, even a man as ignorant as myself knows that.’
‘When your great ancestor arrived here the potato was well established?’
‘Oh, I don’t know, the people here have always been fishers. They would not have relied on it.’
‘Did they not?’
‘As far back as I can remember our staples were mackerel, fresh and salted, potatoes, milk, eggs, kale, cabbage, scallions, carrots, beet. We fed most of the vegetables to the animals. We would have kept the onions but they were not easy to grow. Someone would kill a sheep so there was always a bit of mutton to be had. There were always hens running around, and plenty of eggs. We got a pig between us once a year at Samhain and made salted bacon from what was left after we had a big feast. I never saw garlic until I went to the city.’
‘Mostly mackerel and potatoes?’
‘I don’t know, we ate well. There was always food on the table, even salmon and trout despite the bailiffs.’
‘Did your mother bake soda bread?’
‘And her grandmother … a hard wheaten bread.’
‘I remember my mother talking about that once when I was very young. She said this place was a paradise because there was always fish and loaves and potatoes and milk and eggs in abundance.’
‘Is that why your ancestor moved here?’
‘He was a Basque named Ortz, he was a buyer who came to the town to snap up the cod. He must have taken a shine to Mary O’Sullivan from the hill above the town, she worked in one of the kitchens, where no doubt he took his meals and lodged when he was waiting for the catch. She was my great grandmother, so my family does go back a long way, but not here. I don’t know how it came about but they moved from the town out here. He was a fisherman, that’s all he knew, and he did what we are doing today. That’s all he did. I knew him when I was very young and he was very old, not that his age stopped him from going out in this. He was a master fisherman and he could handle a boat. Three of us went out, Arty I called him, my grandfather, his son Anthony, I’m named after him and sometimes we were a four when Art came out but he wasn’t a man of the sea, he was afraid of the sea, unlike the old men, Arty and Anthony, they were tough, boy they were tough.’
‘I never remember your father going fishing, he was more fond of his prize cattle wasn’t he.’
‘Well maybe my memory is playing tricks, but I remember those days. I’ll tell you why I remember. There we were, myself the youngest, my father, his father, my grandfather and my great grandfather, on a day like this, flat, like the calm before the storm and my father, being nervous, said something that I never thought about until many years later. “Boys, the women will not like this one bit,” he said. “If we go down we’ll all be taken.” Later I heard there was a superstition about all the males in a family going out together. Come to think about it I don’t remember the four of us going out again after that, you know what time is to you when you’re young.’
‘I don’t believe I was ever in that boat with your great grandfather, I was with your grandfather and Seanie, you remember him?’
‘I couldn’t forget him could I, he pulled me out more times than I can remember, I was always falling in.’
A POTATO POSTSCRIPT
A native of the canton Glarus, Johann Jakob Strub was a lieutenant in the English army and according to Swiss legend returned home with a bag of seed potatoes from Ireland. They were cultivated in Glarus in 1697.
Domesticated and cultivated in the highlands of Peru thousands of years ago, the potato (papa in the local dialect) appeared in Spain in 1539 without fanfare. Forty years later it was cultivated in Andalusia and Galicia and sold as a root vegetable in Seville and Madrid. It quickly spread throughout western and northern Europe (Ireland, Britain, France, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Russia, Scandinavia) to become a field crop despite resistance from the peasantry in Germany and Russia, where potato production would eventually become the highest in the world. The potato replaced grain, especially during the 1700s when bad harvests pushed up the price of barley, oats, rye and wheat. A protein package high in carbohydrates plus vitamins and minerals including iron, it became the staple in Ireland, Scotland, England, Flanders, the Rhineland and Switzerland. Eventually it became the base ingredient to make alcohol – potín (poteen) in Ireland, vodka in Russia – and that made it irresistible.
Potatoes became an essential ingredient in ‘field’ and ‘fish’ cauldron soups and stews. The chaudière tradition re-crossed the Atlantic to Newfoundland where it became chaudrée, anglicised as chowder, in many recipes without potatoes. Chowder is now an Irish national dish – made with potatoes.
The Irish tradition of boiling potatoes whole in their skins and serving them with butter or buttermilk is gradually dying out. Potatoes were also combined with buttermilk to make a hearty meal called the Stiffner. Kale became a companion of the potato along the Atlantic Fringe, a meal known as Colcannon in Ireland.
French fries (chips) appeared on Paris streets in the 1800s and soon became synonymous with street fried fish. In England the two were combined to become fish and chips.
In Italy they were prepared pureed with flour and blanched in hot water to make dumplings that were served with grated cheese. In eastern Europe and Russia potatoes were boiled and roasted in animal fats.
In Switzerland the tradition of grating raw potatoes or boiled and peeled potatoes grated and baking them on hot griddles can be traced to Zürich shortly after they were grown in Glarus.
In 1840s an American fungus spread through European potato fields, millions perished and tens of thousands emigrated.
Potatoes are still susceptible to disease.