A Brief History of the Potato Farl

norma

Lucy’s Grandma Norma, around the time that she arrived in the US from Ireland

It’s Culture Day at my daughter’s school this week, and incidentally we just celebrated St. Patrick’s day, so as much as my daughter’s culture around food usually includes anchovies, blue cheese, sushi, and Mint Confetti Ice Cream from Three Twins, she is also quite Irish indeed and it would make sense for us to bring something Irish to share at school.

After somewhat of a disagreement over whether she could bring anchovies to share with her classmates, I came across a recipe for potato farls, cooked them up, got our girl to eat one whereupon she pronounced it delicious, and Culture Day was decided.  First, I got into a little bit of historical meaning behind this food, which I bring to you now.

The potato farl is similar to a potato pancake and is made basically of fried mashed potatoes. It is highly associated with Northern Ireland, and in particular with its main city Belfast. Lucy’s grandmother Norma emigrated from Belfast with her parents when she was a teenager, so our family is strongly associated with Northern Irish culture.

The word farl is pronounced farrel and derives from the old Scots word fardel, which essentially means “a quarter.” Many types of typically irish breads and potato pancakes are round doughs cut into quarters and cooked in a skillet, which is how the farl got its name.

The potato farl’s history is tied closely together with Irish soda bread (or soda farls) for a few important reasons. Ireland’s climate lends itself to growing softer wheats, which led to a popularity of baking breads without yeast, and hence frying up soda or potato breads in a pan:

In Ireland, ‘plain’ soda bread is as likely to be eaten as an accompaniment to a main meal (to soak up the gravy) as it’s likely to appear at breakfast. It comes in two main colors, brown and white, and two main types: cake and farl. People in the south of Ireland tend to make cake: people in Northern Ireland seem to like farl better – though both kinds appear in both North and South, sometimes under wildly differing names.

– From Peter’s Mum’s Soda Bread Recipe

But Ireland is known through the ages as a particularly poor country, and potatoes were a very economical food. ”About two-fifths of the population was solely reliant on this cheap crop for a number of historical reasons.” (Great Famine (Ireland) – Wikipedia)

Soda bread cooking in a heavy pot on the fire, from http://kitchenproject.com/history/IrishSodaBreads/

Soda bread cooking in a heavy pot on the fire, from http://kitchenproject.com/history/IrishSodaBreads/. Lucy’s great-great grandmother would have cooked in a similar fashion on a hearth on Clementine Drive in Belfast.

A poor country discovered that potatoes and milk made a nutritious enough meal to exist on and you could grow more potatoes per acre than any other crop. Soda bread was probably not made as much because of this reason.

– From The History of Irish Soda Bread

That began to change from potatoes to soda bread in the year of 1845. That year, a devastating blight wiped out Ireland’s potato crop and led to many years of what was known as the famous Great Famine. “During the famine approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.” (Great Famine (Ireland) – Wikipedia)

Without potatoes, Ireland turned more strongly back to soda breads baked with more of Ireland’s soft wheats instead of potatoes. Both soda breads and potato farls, however, share their use of baking powder (bicarbonate of soda) as leavening agent instead of yeast.

While Lucy’s grandmother’s family didn’t emigrate until a hundred years after the Great Famine, the seeds of what was a mass emigration from Ireland may have been planted at that time.

Today, potatoes have revived and are back on the table. In the US, we are lucky that we can enjoy an abundance of many different kinds of potatoes year-round, and those of us who are Irish will remember our great love of, dependence on, and recovery from the blight of the great food that is the potato, delicious in many ways.

The recipe we are using to bring to school comes from The Guardian at http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/14/how-to-make-potato-farls-back-to-basics. We’ll bring along a healthy slab of Irish butter just for extra decoration.

Cheers — and enjoy your culture and your food.  It’s why we’re all here!

Elizabeth Black, 1914, Belfast

Lucy’s great-great grandmother Elizabeth Black, in 1914 in Belfast, with great Aunt Nan to her left, and great grandpa Norman on her lap.  Elizabeth would have cooked potato farls on the hearth in there home on Clementine Drive.

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