Almost one year ago my son’s partner, Mia, from rural Ireland, bravely and generously cooked a family Christmas dinner at their Parnell flat. I say bravely because it was the first Christmas dinner Mia had made away from home and without her mother. It was a great, traditional meal and Mia told us that in Ireland Christmas dinner wasn’t the business without “potatoes t’ree ways”. This phrase has become a family saying.
Last week I was in Auckland visiting them and we were all invited to Phoebe’s for dinner. I’ve known Phoebe as long as I have known you. We all met in the third form at high school.
Phoebe’s meal showed me how much Mia is adored by my extended family and friends. Phoebe cooked a beautiful meat loaf – probably inspired by its mention in our book Common Table – and “potatoes t’ree ways”. Roast, scalloped and mashed: one, two, three. The meal was delicious. The guys drank designer ales, we women drank wine, and we talked about potatoes. In the taxi home I thought how wonderful it is to have such good friends, especially ones who understand what it’s like for a young person to be far from home and who show they care by cooking them a meal.
When I flew back to Wellington I checked up on my small potato patch. The problem with potatoes is that they blacken and die in the frost, so you can’t plant them too early. But you want them for Christmas. It’s one of life’s little risks: shall I plant in August or September? This year, feeling optimistic, I planted my new ‘Purple Passion’ potatoes in early August. Then I left them to fend for themselves. But I needn’t have worried. They had rocketed away and were large, leggy plants. I mounded them up before I’d even unpacked the suitcase. I covered the soil with straw up to the bottom of the leaves and knew they’d be ready in late December. They’d be yet another way to eat potatoes for Christmas, in a perfect summer potato salad, something Mia wouldn’t be used to eating in Ireland at Christmas. That would make
it potatoes four ways.
How can you write of mounding your potatoes when I’ve only just planted mine? Frosty mornings down south do not encourage me to plant my potatoes before mid-October, although I note many gardening columnists advocate September planting. We gardeners in the southern hills feel disenfranchised when we read gardening columns that seem to be written for people living somewhere north of the 42nd parallel. I often feel like writing these columnists a note to say that some of us are at least two months behind and would they please bear this in mind when dispensing advice.
But enough gripes, maybe it is time to think about potatoes. I began early last spring with “bucket potatoes” in an effort to have new potatoes for Christmas. Tell your city friends they don’t need green fingers to grow potatoes in buckets; even women with long, red-varnished fingernails would be able to grow them. This is what you do: chuck some dirt (aged compost or potting mix) into the bottom of a holey bucket – a bucket with holes, not a sacred bucket. Drop a seed potato in, cover it and sprinkle with a small handful of potato fertiliser. Water and place the bucket in a warm spot. When the potato leaves emerge, pile more dirt over them. Keep doing this until the bucket is full. Water regularly. Upend the bucket on Christmas Eve, when you will discover
a fine serving of sweet, waxy potatoes.
I have a funny tale to tell you. Do you remember my writing in Common Table about a slow-roasted leg of lamb and wondering whether merlot was the right wine to serve with it? “Must email wine writer John Hawkesby,” I wrote. Today, on the radio, John Hawkesby was recommending a wine match for a leg of slow-roasted lamb. I held my breath. “A merlot,” he said. “A textured merlot with a dash of Brad Thorn grunt layered with the elegance and lightness of a ballerina.” Such eloquence!
Story: Janice Marriott; Virginia Pawsey