Recipe Number Forty Four - April 2007
It was a few weeks ago, on a Friday morning, when we arrived at the restaurant and with a busy lunch planned. It was the fish and chip lunch day. I decided to start by hand peeling the potatoes ready for cutting into chunky chips. As I opened the bag and started to peel I could see that it would be a waste of time. The reason was that a brown speck ran throughout the potato making them unfit for use. This, in fact, wasn't the first time that potatoes of inferior quality had appeared from this fruit and veg company. Being the company they are, and after a few choice words that described the state of the potatoes in question was conveyed in a desperate phone call pointing out that it was bad potatoes that made me change five years ago from another vegetable dealer to the one we have at present. So with that in their minds, a van was sent with what appeared to be slightly better potatoes. It normally takes around half an hour to hand peel a full bag of potatoes and then twenty minutes to slice the chunky chips ready for blanching in hot oil and time was of the essence as we headed for 12 o'clock opening.
After lunch, and the mountain of freshly prepared chips had disappeared, I thought about the humble potato and how we would miss it if old Sir Walter had not discovered it all those years ago. Life on this planet would not have been the same - no creamy mash to go with your bangers, no chips to go with your fish and, of course, no baked jacket potatoes that you could pile butter into and top with your favourite filling. So I think, in a way, we should give old Walter a round of thanks.
Can you imagine? The day that he presented his latest finds to The Queen as he returned from his travels, as the court head man banged his wand on the stone floor and brought the Court to order he announced, “Your Majesty, Sir Walter back from his travels with his latest finds for you inspection.” “Come forth Walter; what have you hiding in you? A cod piece? Or are you just pleased to see me?” “Well, Your Majesty, I have found these little brown things growing in the soil and what you have to do is this; you peel them with a knife slice them up into chunks and pop them into boiling water until they are cooked. Then what you do Your Majesty is this - you take a masher and, when you have drained all the water off, you mash it until it is creamy.” “So Walter you have sailed half way around the world and come back with some little brown balls that you have found hidden in the soil. Have you brought anything else?” “Why yes, Your Majesty. Look here and let me show you this. What you do with this stuff, I have been reliably informed, is you take this dried up plant leaf, rub it in you hands, stick it in this thing I call a pipe and then, you won’t believe what you do next Your Majesty, you set light to it and suck it through the little hole on the end. How about that then? Do you think any of my discoveries will ever catch on your Majesty?” …. so for all his troubles and opening and showing off the contents of his cod piece in Court, it was not long before dear old Sir Walter was given his new high rise penthouse accommodation in the Tower of London.
As we all know, both of Walters’s discoveries would have made him a fortune in today's world. But it wasn't until 1846 that Walter’s humble potato hit the headline again. The place was Ireland. It started in the summer of that year when they had set out the seed potatoes and they all had great hopes of another good harvest, but that summer the weather was very cool and misty. As the crops were dug up it was shock to see that the potatoes had blight. In fact, at one time the blight spread at a rate of up to sixty miles in just one week and soon it infected every potato across the land.
In the late spring of 1847, the government did away with the soup kitchens and started handing out a hot meal that was called “stir about”. It was a type of porridge made from corn meal and rice cooked in water. The demand for this porridge so great that at one time there were three million Irish being kept just alive on this handout
In the autumn of that year, the few potatoes that were harvested was a blight free crop but it was only a very small amount and no way would it feed very many. One way to try to escape the living hell was to go overseas and often your passage was paid for by a landlord who was trying to remove you from a cottage. The landlord would simply pay to send paupers on a journey of three thousand miles, by what they called “coffin ships”, to far off lands that could take up to 40 or so days. Back in Ireland, things were still very bad. People had sold off everything to buy fresh clean tubers and set them hoping that this would be the start of a new life. As we all know in life and what it can send us it also can get worse. In 1848, as the potatoes were dug, people cried in horror as they could not believe their eyes. Potatoes once again rotting and black from the blight - once again the Irish potato crop had failed.
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