In this edition of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle unearths the story behind these heritage potatoes.
It’s easy to get swept up in the romance of artisan food ― the inspiring stories, the secret recipes, the unique ingredients in limited supply, the homely kitchen or bakery ― and, often, the everyday hardships involved in being a small producer are overlooked. Even now, with Ireland’s economic recession in the country’s rearview mirror, the reality is that many of our small producers are fighting a daily battle just to make ends meet.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and Maria Flynn of Ballymakenny Farm in Drogheda, Co. Louth, is a living example of this. Once employed in the financial sector, she wound up at Ballymakenny after falling in love with David Flynn, a third generation farmer who has spent his life working the family land. These days, the Flynns grow visually beautiful Irish heritage varieties of potato and other unusual vegetables. This is no tale of lofty artisanal aspirations, however; the real story here is one of reinvention, of grit, of creative thinking when the alternative was ruin.
Five years ago, Ballymakenny was in a dire situation. With the business going through a hard period that just never seemed to end, the Flynns were racking up debt no matter what they did. “Every year, it was getting a little bit worse,” says Maria. With her husband adamant that he couldn’t give up farming, the pair realised that they desperately needed to diversify, but they were so severely limited by their financial situation that any new venture would have to require zero investment. She began looking for a suitable gap in the market that would work for them.
When Maria discovered purple potatoes, she quickly realised that nobody else in Ireland was growing unusual or heritage varieties for the commercial market. Could this be the opportunity that would save Ballymakenny? A modern businessperson who embraces technology, Maria cleverly leveraged social media as a cost-free way to get the word out. Five years on, chefs around the country rave about their potatoes, the farm is viable once again, and the Flynns can finally breathe. Today, Maria credits much of this success to the power of Twitter. “Social media is my business ― we wouldn’t have anything without it. Our whole business model was born and is sustained through social media.”
The business remains very much a family venture, with only three full-time employees, “although we do rope in some extra bodies at certain times of the year.” David and Maria are both immersed in every stage of the process. “David does slightly more of the planting and maintaining crops, while I’m more involved in the packing, delivering and marketing ― but we both do everything, so our days are busy!”
The Flynns like to keep their potatoes seasonal, meaning they’re available for around six months of the year, depending on when they start to harvest. During the summer months, the farm’s focus switches to brassicas, a clever way to close the gap. “Depending on the year, we might grow long stem broccoli, purple sprouting broccoli, sweet stem cauliflower or kalettes, which are a hybrid of purple Brussels sprouts and kale.”
Since the farm started supplying chefs, sustainability has become much more significant within its everyday systems. “On the packaging front in particular, we take great care to be environmentally friendly; we use some recyclable bags for packing our broccoli, and for everything else, we use cardboard.” They use organic slug pellets and non-chemical fertiliser, and they also plant cover crops, a smart and all-natural way to feed nutrients back into the soil.
Ballymakenny currently produces eight varieties of potato: the stunning purple Violetta, Pink Fir Apples, Red Emmalie, Mayan Gold, Mayan Twilight, Mayan Rose and Yukon Gold. “They all have a beautiful, vibrant potato taste,” says Maria, “but there are subtle differences, and every variety has its own individual flavour. This is why we grow largely for chefs, as they can really appreciate these characteristics.” While the Pink Fir Apples are their biggest seller, her current favourite is the Mayan Gold. “I love them cooked very simply, just steamed until they break out in the pot, and with some butter, salt and pepper.”
Ballymakenny Farm’s potatoes may have been born out of sheer necessity ― when times are desperate, it’s impossible to think outside the immediate reality ― but it’s a happy repercussion that growing heritage crops is important from a sustainability perspective. Before the rise of industrial agriculture, we grew a much wider variety of plant foods; indeed, as recent as the early 20th century, crop diversity was huge by modern standards. Since World War II, however, Western agriculture has abandoned diversity in favour of uniformity and an overwhelming drive for profit. Very few varieties of each type of crop are grown, often selected for productivity and ability to survive long distance shipping. This has led to a massive drop in genetic biodiversity. Today, of the 80,000 edible crops available for food production, only 150 are currently grown; just eight of these are sold on a global scale. We have a responsibility to protect and preserve endangered species ― not just to give ourselves variety, but to safeguard our biological and cultural legacy. In 2018, Maria was honoured with a Eurotoques award, an outstanding recognition of her contribution towards preserving Ireland’s culinary heritage.
Despite their origins in South America, in many ways there’s no food more Irish than a spud. In the Test Kitchen, we’ve been having fun with the Ballymakenny Violetta, a heritage potato with striking indigo-toned skin and flesh. Celebrate the delicate flavour of these blue beauties by making crisp potato röstis and adding your favourite toppings. We loved the combination of Irish smoked salmon paired with airy, whipped goat’s cheese, but you could also try bacon with curly kale sautéed in butter, or simply serve the röstis with the full fry-up for a weekend treat.
With the Ballymakenny brand fast becoming known for innovation, forward thinking and creativity, it’s no surprise that there’s more to come. “Breaking news ― we’ve just started to develop our own potato salad for the retail sector,” says Maria. “We’re only in the early development stages, but watch this space. We have a few secret plans in the pipeline, too.” While there’s no doubt that Maria’s inventiveness, adaptability and resilience have saved the farm ― and taken much stress from the Flynns’ shoulders in the process ― it doesn’t hurt that her heritage potatoes are doing the world some good, too: a little bit of romance, after all.