It has been a long, long wait! The awful cold and wet spring weather has held everything up. Finally, after a few false starts, I have enjoyed the first ‘balls of flour’ of 2013.The term ‘balls of flour ‘will mean nothing to anyone who has not been born and bred in Ireland. It refers of course to the eagerly awaited early crop of new potatoes . Potatoes! To many people outside of Ireland the very word conjures up images of Famine. The reality is that when the new potatoes arrive each year , it is in fact a fabulous feast!
My own earliest encounter with the expression was way, way back in the mists of time. My father rented a small field each year for the sole purpose of growing potatoes. In early days it was a number of drills in a big field in Drumnamona,outside Carrigart, but the plot I remember best was in Tirlaughan, beside an abandoned stone house, up on a hill. The plot was small and my memory is of it being warm and sunny. Early in the year seed potatoes were put into boxes to develop eyes. On Good Friday each year, sprouted seed potatoes were inspected, and if they had ‘eyes’ they were good to plant. Big ones were cut in half.
They were planted in drills – backbreaking work for youngish children – and later they were ‘earthed up’ to exclude all light. On the morning of June 29th, (the Feast of St Peter & Paul, and coincidentally, also the annual sports day in Cranford) we went off with my father, carrying the grape (a two-pronged fork) and a bucket. The grape was plunged deep into the black earth under the leafy green plant, and the first new spuds came up – with many of various sizes attached to the roots of each plant, eliciting ‘oohs ‘ and ‘aahs’ from all of us as the earth was shaken off and the potatoes fell to the ground.
They were inspected, tested to see if the thin skin would just ‘rub off’, placed in the bucket and off we went with our treasure . In a couple of hours, (in these days dinner was the mid day meal) they were on a huge plate in the middle of the table, ready to be devoured. If they were declared to be ‘balls of flour’ it was the ultimate accolade and a promise of a great meal to follow.
With almost the same intensity as we think of them at Christmas, our emigrants are uppermost in our thoughts at this time. Wherever they are, whether it be USA, Australia, Canada, the UK or Europe, or any place else – chances are, they are missing the balls of flour at this time of year. The Irish taste for dry floury potatoes is not shared by others, whose preference is for waxy varieties. I recall being unable to eat the potatoes in England when I first went to live there, as the texture was so unappealing to me. Similarly in Australia last year, the offering of a so-called potato was underwhelming!
For a few weeks we will enjoy this beautiful early crop, steamed ( not boiled) , skins removed and served with a knob of butter and a grind of black pepper. Heaven!