Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The story of Comber Potatoes

Comber Potatoes are soon to be a local product with 'PGI' (Protected Geographical Indicator) status, much like Champagne wine, Parma ham etc. This report from the Belfast Telegraph almost exactly one year ago gives a fascinating definition:

"...Only potatoes grown in the former Hamilton and Montgomery lands would pass muster — that is Ards Borough Council as far south as Ardkeen on the Ards peninsula and Crossgar and Killyleagh on the western side of Strangford, North Down Borough Council and the parts of Castlereagh, Belfast and Down District Councils that lie to the east of the A7 road between Carryduff and Killyleagh..."

This is a direct quote from the official DEFRA document (PDF here). The document goes on to quote from The Montgomery Manuscripts. And Ayrshire, where Hamilton & Montgomery came from, is of course also famous for potatoes - so it may well have been the early Scots who brought spuds to Comber.

There's an alternative story though, which is that some of the English colonists who came to the Ards with Sir Thomas Smith in 1572-1575 were farmers, and after Smith's 'official' colony collapsed they remained to farm the flat fertile land near Comber. When Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potato from the Americas to Europe (and specifically to Ireland) in the late 1580s, some of the seed crop were brought to the Comber area and were planted there by these English tenants. So maybe the Comber spud is Ulster-English in origin rather than Ulster-Scots.

Comber spuds are in season just now, but if you're driving along the M1 near Moira / Lisburn, keep an eye out for this poster I've just designed for one of my clients, local potato producer Wilson's Country, in a roadside field where they are currently growing a fresh crop. It's had quite a reaction from passing motorists!


(explanation for readers not from Ulster - 'peelers' is a nickname for 'police')