It's a wonder that Irish people retain their good humour amid the perpetual potato-baiting they endure. Around the world table, their cuisine is frequently reduced to the humble spud and many a wag suggested One Hundred Ways to Cook Potatoes as an alternative title for World Food: Ireland. But despite the stereotyping, and however much we like to disprove it, the potato is still paramount and you will see a lot of them on your travels.
In many ways it seems like the potato was God's gift to Ireland; it thrives in the damp, cool climate, can grow virtually anywhere, produces high yields and is very healthy fare, containing carbohydrates, minerals and vitamin C.
Pirate-turned-admiral, Walter Raleigh, is credited with planting the first potato in Ireland – at his home in Youghal in Co Cork around 1585 – although his gardener probably deserves some of the credit, as history clearly shows that Walter was a tad busy for indulging his green fingers.
In any case, the Irish soon became dependent on prataí (potatoes) and from the 17th to the 20th centuries, it seems they ate little else. A reliable diet enabled the population to double from 1780-1840.
Such was the dependency on the potato that when crops failed in 1845, and the ensuing potato famine ravished the country, one million people died of starvation and disease, and another two million fled the country and the misery.
Apart from this catastrophe, potatoes provided the first means of food security known to the Irish and, when crops recovered, they were welcomed back to the table.
Even today, as cosmopolitan Ireland absorbs the influences of its European neighbours, potatoes will feature in at least one daily meal, and the average person eats a whopping 300lb of spuds annually. Traditionally, potatoes were used to make bread, pancakes, poitin (illicitly made whiskey) and cakes, although few but tourists consume them as anything but vegetables these days.
This is an extract from 'World Food: Ireland' published by Lonely Planet, price £6.99Reuse content