The much anticipated Comber Early potato is in season now.
This iconic tuber was granted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in 2012, making it a treasured product from a specific place, alongside others like Parma ham, Stilton cheese and French Champagne.
The potatoes grow in the fields surrounding Strangford Lough and farmers there talk of the lapping waves being like a protective hot water bottle for crops.
The potatoes have a distinct nutty flavour and are best scrubbed clean, steamed or boiled and then tossed in butter.
They have a limited season that should be cherished and appropriately enough today in the town square in Comber there’s a dedicated Comber Earlies Food Festival running from 10am to 4pm.
You’ll be able to sample the potatoes at first hand from the farmers that grow them and there’s a cookery demonstration area with chefs showing how to use them in a variety of recipes.
There are potato themed children’s workshops and a chance for everyone to meet the growers, who are passionate about this fantastic local product.
The French talk about “terroir” where the land and associated elements impact on the produce of specific areas. In Northern Ireland the potato is a classic example of this. When you drive into Portstewart, from Coleraine, at this time of year an old disused Aghadowey Food Service van offers passers-by the chance to buy freshly dug new season potatoes.
These potatoes are balls of flour, unlike the variety grown 70 miles away on the North Down coast. Growing ground for these varieties might be less than 100 miles apart but they’re both distinctly different, taking influence from the soil and elements that surround them.
The Mighty Spud campaign, orchestrated by the Ulster Farmer’s Union, strives to get people to embrace the spud that potentially has run out of favour with consumers. Rice and pasta have taken over our native tuber in terms of popularity. The perception is that potatoes are harder to prepare and not as healthy as these other carbs. The fact is that potatoes in their jackets are full of nutrients, fat free and completely delicious . You need to do an awful lot to make pasta and rice palatable, but a simple boiled spud, anointed with a little butter is a complete meal in itself.
My recipes this week are the ones I’ll be cooking at the Comber Potato festival.
The new season coincides with arrival of the Portstewart lobster, so I’ll be cooking the king of the sea and combining it with baked Comber Earlies.
Schiaccata is a Tuscan bread, literally meaning crushed, that traditionally is made with yeast and olive oil.
I’ve taken out the yeast, substituted Broighter gold rapeseed oil and topped the whole thing with thinly sliced Comber Earlies, rosemary and garlic.
It’s then baked until the golden, crisp potatoes top the fluffy dough – irristible.
When I was growing up my grandparents grew potatoes in a plot at the back of their house in Tullyhogue outside Cookstown. The freshly dug crop was steamed and served with lettuce and tomatoes from the garden, a boiled egg and salad cream. We’ve become a bit sniffy about salad cream and favour continental mayonnaise instead. I’ve included a recipe for homemade salad cream – egg, cream, mustard and oil whizzed together. Warm Comber Potatoes, nostalgic dressing and a few scallions – what could be better?
For more info on the festival go to visitardsandnorthdown.com or foodni.com.