Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Champ of Ireland

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There is so much to the small island of Ireland that it is hard to know where to start, and almost impossible to finish telling.
The Celtic tradition of music, storytelling and the arts is alive and well in all parts of Ireland so from a night singing in a bar to walking the literary history of Dublin there is something for all tastes. Talking of tastes there is the food and drink of Ireland - whiskeys, stouts, potatoes, beef, oysters - the list goes on and all can be found in the pubs and Michelin starred restaurants of the Emerald Isle. Of course, there is also golf, fishing, walking and a myriad of other things to do in Ireland but when it comes to literature, food and history I'm in heaven.

The Long Room, Trinity College, Dublin.



I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I first stepped into the library at Trinity College Dublin. It is everything that I dream of a library being - wooden bookcases rise from floor to ceiling (on more than one floor - can you imagine!) under beautiful arches, row after row of books. It is an inspirational place to stand let alone sit and think and write. Trinity College is also home to the Book of Kells, a beautifully illuminated manuscript containing the four Gospels. My first visit to Dublin coincided with the production of an introductory booklet on the Book of Kells containing 110 colour images of the manuscript. Sadly I did not have the money at the time to acquire a copy and much as I looked forlornly at my then husband a copy was still not forthcoming.

Dublin was awarded the status of UNESCO City of Literature in 2010 and being the home to many great writers such as Joyce and Wilde it is easy to see why. But the literature tour does not stop in Dublin. Sligo is the place to head for to find out about W.B.Yeats and there are literary festivals in Galway, Cork and Monaghan.

One branch of my family hails from County Monaghan in Ireland and until my great-uncle died in the 1980s they were still farming potatoes. I think it is in the blood as there is something very wrong if I do not have potato in some form or another as part of my meals each day. I do love a spud!

County Down
Attribution: Ross
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
It rains a lot in Ireland, which is why it is such a green landscape and creates pasture land that is ideal for feeding the cattle. Ireland produces some of the tastiest beef in the world.  During the colonisation of Ireland by the British, the Irish Catholics were moved from the rich pasture land and onto farming land that was of a poorer quality but could sustain the potato crop. It was during this time that poverty became an increasing problem and the potato became the staple diet of the poor Irish. When Potato Blight hit the Irish potato crop and devastated it in 1845 and following years it lead to the deaths of almost a million Irish and the emigration of a million more. It was a black period, amongst many, in the joint histories of Britain and Ireland.

Potatoes are still farmed to a good extent in Ireland with about 12,000 hectares and 600 commercial producers involved. Two varieties - Rooster and Kerr's Pink - allow for over 50% of the area planted. (http://www.bordbia.ie/aboutfood/veg/potatoes/pages/default.aspx) Both varieties are excellent for boiling, baking and chipping and have red and pink skins respectively. During those cold, wet days in Ireland there is nothing more comforting and satisfying than to sit down to a bowl of creamy mashed potato, either on its own with butter running through it or served with delicious, good quality sausages.

I like to eat my mashed potatoes as 'champ'. Hailing from the north of Ireland, champ is similar to the colcannon of the south of Ireland but is made without the colcannon cabbage. Writing about this I am more than tempted to get out of my seat and go and make some before settling down to read a book and dip into its creamy loveliness. It is quick and easy and the best comfort food I know.

Recipe

Ingredients

1kg (2 1/4 lb) potatoes, peeled and halved
250ml (8 fl oz) milk
1 bunch spring onions, thinly sliced
50g (2 oz) butter
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place potatoes into large pot and fill with enough water to cover. Bring to the boil and cook until tender, about 20 minutes.

Drain well. Return to very low heat and allow the potatoes to dry out for a few minutes. (It helps if you place a clean tea towel over the potatoes to absorb any remaining moisture.)

Meanwhile, heat the milk and spring onions gently in a saucepan until warm.

Mash the potatoes and butter together until smooth. Stir in the milk and spring onion until evenly mixed. Season with freshly ground black pepper. Serve piping hot in bowls. 

Unctuousness on a plate

Hints and Tips

Make sure you use potatoes that are good for boiling. As mentioned above Roosters and Kerr's Pinks are ideal.

Do not think that your guests might not want a little more butter with their champ - I would! Serve some butter so that those you want to can add some more to the creamy loveliness.

If you want to add a little piquancy to the dish (though it does stray from the authentic) add some whole grain mustard to the mix. 



Irish Tourist Board http://www.discoverireland.ie/

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