Growing up in America, I thought there were only three types of potatoes: small red potatoes, Yukon Golds, and the classic big earthy brown type grown in Idaho — -Russets. As a teenager, I was lucky if I could find purple potatoes, something that became popular in grocery stores around the time. If someone had asked me to describe a potato I would have said an oblong vegetable that’s brown and starchy without much flavour.
The only sensible way to eat a Russet potato is to slather it in little white squares of butter until it melts and pools and then with a generous spoonful of sour cream. Or deep-fried in a vat of bubbling canola oil for french fries. Or perhaps grated into hash browns or latkes to eat with more sour cream or a soft poached egg. You can’t go wrong with mashed, with lots of butter (again) and milk. Everything with lots of salt. I enjoyed potatoes not in themselves but for the fatty ingredients that they wore.
I moved to Ireland and the world of potatoes changed. Idaho russets are non-existent here and I was sceptical. What do people eat if they want a baked potato? And who knew there was a massive distinction between waxy and floury potatoes? You could ruin a whole recipe by putting in floury instead of waxy potatoes. I ruined a stew this way — the potatoes turned to mealy mash inside the stew instead of lovely soft pieces in gravy.
The potatoes in Ireland have a variety of names, shapes, and sizes. Rooster. Charlotte. Premiere. Queens. Kerrs Pink. Homegaurd. There are many types to choose from depending on what you’re making for dinner and the time of year.
Driving along rural roads throughout the countryside my husband and I discovered what we dubbed ‘road potatoes’. Potatoes are harvested year-round which means that if you’re driving through Ireland chances are you’ll see signs for freshly dug potatoes from local farms. The type depends on the time of year and your location. In County Donegal, Kerrs Pinks and Queens are popular. Queens arrive in the summer and Kerrs Pinks come out in the autumn.
Lately, we’ve been driving around Donegal looking for road potatoes and going past mauve bogs full of thistles, yellow gorse and heather. This simple activity has become part of an overwhelming feeling to make a new home in a foreign place. The Irish potato is so familiar yet enhanced here to anything I’ve ever tasted. No watery russets to be found — and that’s okay.
It’s incredibly satisfying to pull over on the side of the road and buy a giant bag of potatoes from a farmer or one of their family members with the dirt still encrusted around each potato like a protective blanket. This is the definition of eating local. Often, these small roadside stands would have carrots and cabbages, fresh chicken and duck eggs.
I like to take the produce home and thoughtfully scrub each potato to reveal the skin underneath. It’s always a surprise. Some are a light pink or scarlet and others knobby and bumpy with skin that’s almost translucent or surprisingly incongruous with the potato’s flesh.
My husband showed me that the best way to enjoy and appreciate a good floury potato is to boil it with the skin on. You let the potatoes boil for quite some time — until nearly falling apart in some cases — where the skin begins to peel back away from the flesh. Then you drain the water away and let the potatoes dry out and steam in a colander over the sink. That’s all there is to it.
The potatoes are placed in a large bowl on the dinner table where everyone can help themselves and peel each one on their plate using a knife and fork. A little pressure from the back of the fork causes the potato to collapse into a heap of fluffy floury goodness that only needs a tiny bit of yellow farmhouse butter to complement its earthy flavour. I like mine with a lot of salt and pepper.
To learn more about where I’m living, I’ve been attempting to work my way through classic Irish potato recipes. Potato farls are chewy and nearly sweet. Boxty seems to be a version of Jewish potato latkes. Colcannon takes advantage of sharp green onions. These discoveries are always surprising and as I make my way in a new home my appreciation for this humble vegetable grows along with my knowledge.