The Cottage Smallholder


stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Grow good potatoes, bluestone and assorted memories of my dad

Danny's potato border (a week ago)

Danny's potato border (a week ago)

Fiona suggested that I contribute my first “Guest spot” this evening, while she cooks up a mouth-watering frittata. Seems like a good trade to me. The aroma of the frying bacon wafts up to my eyrie in the Rat Room to spur me on.

 Her laptop is still in intensive care. The ‘fixes’ haven’t worked. She has stopped ringing the company twice a day to enquire about the health of her companion. She gets the health report each morning. The prognosis his spiralled rapidly down from.
“We’ll ring you at the end of the day to arrange collection.”
To.
“One problem opens up to another. We’re wondering if it’s worth exploring the problem.”
So at the moment Fiona has no voice (just worldwide as the laryngitis is a bit better and she was back at work today).

Potatoes are one of the current topics of discussion across the Cottage Smallholder dinner table at the moment because this year I have planted two “ridges” the width of three spuds for the first time in our 12 year association. I followed the techniques that I remember my dad using 40 years ago in rural West Cork.

He started by ploughing over the plot in late autumn and applied fertiliser in January or early February so that it had several weeks to break up and soak into the soil before planting commenced in March. He was a primary school teacher but should have been a farmer. He loved the land and was never happier than when he could shed his schoolhouse garb for his “home gear” at 3:30 in the afternoon and go out to work on our five acres.

Looking back, he was a true entrepreneur and socialist. Just one of those guys that every village needs, someone who drives projects. He strove to establish a bacon factory in our area but failed. Not for want of effort but because of national party politics. He was the guy who organised the purchase of a field with quite a slope and had it converted into a fine football pitch over the course of several years.

The potato planting season began in mid-March with the early crop. I was a bookish child, happy to huddle in a quiet corner with an Enid Blyton. But I would always be summoned to help. A very cold east wind blew as my dad used a narrow spade and open a space where I would drop in a seed potato (one that has germinated a little and has “eyes” sprouting). I’ve discovered that in England you chit a whole seed potato. In Ireland my Dad cut the spuds up after chitting, leaving at least one eye on each segment. I tried this method in my potato patch this year. The leaves took a bit longer to come through but they are now sturdy, flowering  plants.

I hated having to help with those childhood potato planting sessions. It was bitterly cold and I’ve never associated pain with gain. When it comes to physical labour, I am a lazy sod. To this day, I blame those freezing March episodes for my antipathy towards gardening. My Fiona has gently guided me back to an appreciation of vegetable (and herbaceous) planting, and I thank her. When I look at my border of spuds I feel really proud.

Sometime around May, my dad sprayed the potatoes to protect against blight. Back then, the only spray known to an Irishman was pure Copper Sulphate. We called it Bluestone. When mixed with water in an old oil drum, it transformed into a magical cobalt blue lake that seemed to beckon me into its totally poisonous depths.

Early varieties were dug up for the table in late June and early July. They were balls of flour. One of the distinguishing features between English and Irish culture seems to be the preference for floury (Irish) or waxy (English) potatoes according to taste. My mum adored a plate of new floury potatoes accompanied by salt and a glass of homemade buttermilk. She always did have had great taste. I must confess to a recent strong liking for Jersey Royals. Sweet and waxy, they are absolutely divine.

I have no idea which of these are early or main crop but my Dad used to plant:
Home Guard
British Queens
Kerris Pinks
King Edwards
Our late departed and dearly missed neighbour, David Eynon, used to hoot with laughter that an Irishman could contemplate growing such British imperialistically named varieties!

The main crop was dug up in September and laid in a shallow pit that was lined with bracken. Then it was transported indoors to a dry outhouse to feed our family of seven throughout the winter.

The slice of life I have described here was 1960s to early 70s. Sadly, my dad succumbed to a rare form of leukaemia in the mid 70s. The village still misses him. His socialist leanings meant that he would inform the local small farmers about Department of Agriculture grants and assist everyone. He deputised for the government agencies at a time when poverty was rife in rural areas like ours and made a real difference to local farmers that might not have heard of recent grants or schemes.

My single biggest regret was that the village convened a “committee” to oversee the running of the football pitch. It should really have been named after my dad but it was not. Village politics took precedence.

I hate this kind of politics.


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7 Comments

  1. Simon – that was a heart-warming response. Thank you very much. Did your dad teach you as mine did me? That was a strange experience for me, in hindsight. More reminiscences for a future post, no doubt.
    It’s rare to meet somebody whose parent(s) also loved the old fashioned flavour of real buttermilk. The shop bought substance is a travesty of the real thing. Also, I never knew that the Anglesey climate was so mild. West Cork had the Gulf Stream lapping its shores but could be chilly for sure.

    J Grants – thank you for the compliment. I wonder if you watched the TV series Life On Mars with Philip Glenister & John Simm? That took me right back to the days when The Sweeney was the top TV show – and how we loved it! I think people were just plain nicer back then

    Joanna – I have thought about your query and theory (you poet!). Our plot was on a slope, with reasonable soil. I think the ridges approach is designed to make “earthing” easier and more efficient. One can easily spread soil across both ridges from the trench between each one. As they need earthing twice in the early weeks, this is a significant labour saving aspect. That’s my theory, anyhow.

    Magic cochin – you have sold me on sowing International Kidney spuds next year.
    I don’t have specific cooking tips for floury varieties like your Edzell Blue, except that I recall my mum cooking ours just until the skins split. If I could find floury spuds in Ye Local Shoppe, I might test the technique. Love to C & you from us both.

    Kate uk – I am so delighted that you spelled them as Kerr’s Pinks. That was my recollection too. However, a certain bloggist, known to us both, insisted on editing that to Kerris Pinks. To be honest, I have never sampled a Keris Pink but I adored the good old Kerr’s Pink. Now there is a spud to die for!

    Mike – good man! Based on your suggestion, we are considering patenting the name NEW Jersey Royals because we live near NEWmarket and it would be a NEW variety. Good NEWs!! 🙂

  2. Mike the Gardener

    As a gardener from New Jersey…it’s ok to use the name even if you don’t grow them here 🙂

    Regards,
    Mike the Gardener

  3. kate (uk)

    Kerr’s pink- I love this variety, so pretty and so tasty.Grew some last year in a bag, most successful. Didn’t get round to doing potato bags this year, regretting it now!

  4. magic cochin

    That was a lovely read Danny – you obviously have very fond memories of your Dad. I think gardens are great ‘remembering’ places, the plants, scents and textures seem to invite in memories.

    I always grow ‘International Kidney’ potatoes – they do very well and are the same variety as ‘Jersey Royals’ (which can only use that name if grown in Jersey). I was also seduced into growing ‘Edzell Blue’ by the wonderful purple skin colour. Having now read a review by Daughter of the Soil, I now realise they are very floury and fall apart on cooking (the purple disappears too). Perhaps you could give us some serving suggestions for floury spuds.

    Hope Fiona feels a bit better today.

    Celia

  5. Joanna

    I was wondering if you planted the potatoes in ridges in Ireland due to the damp weather and to keep the potatoes above what could be sodden ground. They plant the potatoes in the same way you did here in Latvia and often the ground can be fairly surplus in water and the ground cold from the long hard winter – no chance of us getting potatoes in quite so early as it was still under 2 foot of snow, ours went in late April. Still there looking good

  6. J Grants

    Very well-written post. It’s amazing how times were back in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s also nice to see that you have fond memories of your dad.

  7. A lovely article which reminds me of my father-in-law, who was also a primary school teacher before rising to the dizzy heights of HM Inspector (in the days when inspection meant working with teachers to improve, rather than the guerilla tactics of the infamous brotherhood of Ofsted). He was a keen gardner in Anglesey who had strange friable, free-draining soil that grew good carrots – a revelation to a man all too familiar with Suffolk and Midland clays.

    My wife’s family also introduced me to the pleasure of potatoes with locally fermented buttermilk. Served in a pudding bowl we each added the ‘llaeth’, mashed them up and ground fresh pepper. Unfortunately the dairy stopped producing and it’s now very difficult to get proper buttermilk.

    Dennis also made good use of his greenhouse to produce long crops of Gardener’s Delight which I remember once stretched through to Christmas – bear in mind this was in Anglesey where a frost is almost unheard of. Now we’ve got one which is nurturing 17 young plants of the same variety and a dozen of basil which he also loved.

    Hope Fiona and the laptop get better soon
    Simon

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