Balls of Flour – the joy of new potatoes

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.

Sprouted Seed Potato. Image WikiMedia Commons

Sprouted Seed Potato. Image Wikimedia Commons

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.

Drills of potatoes. Image Wikimedia Commons

Drills of potatoes. Image Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Great Balls of Flour!

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!

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A dish of Queens

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!

Royal Feast - Skins removed, with a knob of butter  on top

Royal Feast – Skins removed, with a knob of butter on top. A dinner fit for Queens.


August 13, 2013 · 12:39 pm

19 responses to “Balls of Flour – the joy of new potatoes

  1. Yum, what more is here to say?

  2. Can’t but think of Seamus Heaney as I read this ~ there’s a lovely poetry about it.

  3. Ah, memories of ‘Tarry Flynn’ coming out of our old record player ‘You’re writing poetry instead of digging drills…’ Fascinating, first hand account of the old (and indeed existing) ways SV.
    Until reading this I hadn’t realised how early the Jersey Royal ‘earlies’ are; planting outdoors can start as early as December and lifting around Easter. We do have certain climate and soil advantages though 🙂
    The word ‘drill’ is unknown here but we have ‘cotil’ which is a steep-sloped, south-facing potato field.

    • ‘Cotil’ now there’s a word – our field qualifies as a ‘cotil’ I’m sure!
      Jersey Royal used to be the most expensive potatoes on the market, certainly back in the 1960s when as a young one in London I was in quest of a proper spud. A Jersey Royal was not it! However, I have developed finer tuned tastes across the decades and can now eat the likes of Jersey Royals and enjoy them very much! Now if we had Jersey weather here, we could have early Queens several times a year instead of briefly in the summer ! Thanks for the comment!

  4. A wonderfully evocative post of such an ancient and important practice in this land.

  5. I haven’t planted potatoes in years – but they still keep coming up! I never knew that the floury variety was preferred – as an American, I think we prefer something in between waxy and floury for baking (the Idaho). But mine, being refugees of unknown parentage, can be floury or waxy! Even had lovely pink flowers this year, go figure 🙂

    • Good for you with your repeat cropping varieties! Early Queens would not do for baking at all – far too delicate for such harsh treatment! You should try some early Queens next year as you are so fortunate in being able to grow them with no effort! Thanks for the visit!

  6. Angela, I thought I’d commented last night but must have lost it.. I found this a fascinating insight into a social tradition. Great memories for you.

    • Thank you Pauleen. It’s a yummy time indeed! I eat potatoes every day when they are like this. Nowadays you would hear people pass the word about there being good potatoes in such a shop…they are a big part of our traditional cooking. Thanks for your visit (twice!?)!

  7. I remember first arriving in Ireland and sitting at my mother-in-law’s kitchen table with the family all around. One by one, they passed a big bowl of spuds, peeled the skins and talked about the “lovely floury potatoes”. I just couldn’t understand the difference back then between a floury potato and a waxy one. Years on, however, I know just what everyone was raving about and look forward to spuds drenched with Dairy Gold, cracked pepper and a sprinkling of salt. Thanks so much for the great post!

  8. Fitz

    Here’s me finishing a plate of waxy spuds in a land down under. Froiled…. boiled/fried in butter in a tight sealed pot with garlic and a fist full of our own garden peas. Had them with a couple of lamb chops.
    I have a taste for them now, but got to thinking about (and googling) balls of flour. I remembered mother hurling abuse, in absentia, at the farmer whose “balls of flour, Mam” turned out to be on the soapier end of her scale. I can smell earth again and we digging our own wee crop out of our garden and trout rising in the stream below the field. Me itching to get at them…….ahhh well. Thanks for the memory.

    • There is many an Irish mother still vexed each summer by the promise of balls of flour that turn out to be soapies. Lovely memories of your ‘wee crop’and your fresh trout – where was that ? I am thinking possibly Ulster because of your ‘wee’crop? Your homegrown peas sound wonderful with your garlic spuds and lamb chops!
      Thank you so much for dropping by. You should write a blog – you make beautiful word pictures!
      Nollaig fe shona duit. Angela

  9. Pingback: Lots of potatoes in a small space | Farmgasm

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