The French have a term “terroir” meaning “of the earth”.
They use it in reference to products from wine to cheese and bread to vegetables.
It’s a celebration of natural, unpolluted food from a certain place. Soil has an influence on anything that’s grown in it. In wine terms, the best irrigated and most mineral rich soil will produce quality vines, grapes and ultimately excellent wine.
Here in Northern Ireland we mightn’t have commercial vines but we do grow the best potatoes in the world. I was brought up in Aghadowey and raised on William Hunter’s potatoes. At this time of year the much anticipated new season Queens variety appear. In our house they would have been boiled or steamed in their freshly scrubbed jackets, split and anointed with locally produced Ballyrashane butter. Whatever they were served with, be it steak, sausage or chicken, didn’t really matter because the spud was the star of the plate. We were big spud bakers in our house too – crispy skin that belied a soft, tender filling. Queens are balls of flour when pigeon holing them. I still love the sight of a bag of “Hunter’s Queens”.
Despite being a professional cook for more years than I’d care to recall, I wouldn’t mess around too much with good potatoes – the simpler the better. But as this is a cookery column, spuds and butter wouldn’t fill the copy required. My first recipe is for a sweet spongecake made with potatoes. Don’t be put off by the addition of the tuber – it just gives the finished cake a bit of substance. A few years ago Lisburn based distiller Ruby Blue, owned by Stuart and Barbara Hughes, brought out a potato vodka. It’s a top class spirit with spicy, vanilla notes. When the cake comes out of the oven I brush it with a syrup made from the vodka and some elderflower cordial. If you don’t want to use vodka just substitute half water and half cordial to the recipe. Gooseberries are in full flight at the moment – I love their lip puckering astringency eased with sugar. Elderflower and gooseberries are perfect together and make a zingy topping for the cake.
In Italy potato pizza is very popular. Wafer thin sliced potatoes are arranged over dough, scattered with rosemary and cheese and baked for a matter of minutes. I’ve taken inspiration from this for my other recipe. A soda bread base is topped with soft golden onions, a layer of potatoes added and then cheese. It’s baked for half an hour – the base here is light and fluffy as opposed to the Italian thin crust version. Comber Early potatoes work brilliantly in this recipe. They’re slightly waxy and will stand up to the cooking. Incidentally the new season potatoes from Strangford are particularly sublime this year – they’re a bit later and are all the better for it. For the cheese I’ve suggested using Banagher Bold ale washed cheese from Tamnagh Foods based in the Sperrins. It’s a deliciously robust cheese that peps up the potatoes. The lovage in my garden is flourishing at the moment and is a lovely addition to this recipe. Don’t worry if you don’t have any, top it off with fresh parsley or picked thyme leaves.
New season potatoes whether they’re Aghadowey Queens or Comber Earlies need to be celebrated. Forget about pasta and rice, these local natural treasures are what it’s about. What other food could you cook simply, toss in a bit of butter and enjoy? They’re only here for a short time so grab them when you can.