The potato became a staple of the Irish diet soon after Sir Walter Raleigh introduced it to Cork in the late 16th century. As newly harvested potatoes or "new potatoes" were still wet, people preferred to eat them in the form of the mash we know today. Back then, simple mashed spuds – with milk, salt and a knob of butter – was known as Colcannon (aka Poundies in Donegal). A little cold cabbage, parsley, was added in some counties. (When spring onions were added it was known in some parts as Champ). Back then colcannon was "a hearty meal" in itself.
Everyone ate Colcannon for supper on Halloween, rich or poor. Such was its popularity that many a farm labourer would go for a feed of colcannon in lieu of payment. (Many farmers would gift a quart of milk and a pound of butter going home that night for the making of it).
A bucket of new potatoes would be washed clean and peeled. The peeled potatoes were then put in a bucket of clean water and washed again, before being put in a pot (cauldron) of clean water over the fire. When the potatoes were boiled, they were taken off the fire and drained in a skib (shallow basket). They were then well-pounded with a beetle or pounder. New milk and salt were mixed in. And cabbage leaves were placed across the mash to keep in the steam. The whole family would sit around the dish (placed upon the skib, in the middle of the floor), with large spoons, and each would make a small well in the mash before them, where a knob of butter would melt. They would then tuck in. People would want to see who could stay eating the longest. [Source: duchas.ie]
On "Colcannon Night" (October 31st) a ring and a coin were added to predict the future. Finding the ring while eating the colcannon, predicted marriage within a year. The coin foretold of wealth or inheritance. Another tradition was to peel one potato for the colcannon without breaking the skin. This they would hang up to predict who would marry the eldest girl in the house (the first man to enter the house while it was hanging!)
From the 1880s it was brought to international fame as a "Vegetarian dish".
VEGETARIAN DINNER AND MEETING – On Saturday afternoon, a public vegetable dinner, illustrative of the cheap and wholesome diet advocated by the Vegetarian Society, was provided in Altham's Cocoa Rooms ... The tables were assiduously attended to exclusively by members of the Nelson Branch, and the bill of fare comprised—lentil and tomato soup, onion and apple pie, vegetable pie, omelette, haricot beans with onion sauce, potatoes a la tomato, colcanon, mash potatoes, macaroni cheese, hominy, cagliari, hominy moulds, fruits, apples and oranges. [Burnley Express 1881]
Cabbage? Curly Kale? Anything goes!
The addition of cabbage and onion (what we call colcannon today) was a more recent development.
While Curly Kale is considered the traditional greens for colcannon, any variety of green cabbage is acceptable, to include turnip tops!
POTATO COLCANON (Northampton 1915): Boil some potatoes and greens separately. Spinach is the nicer green, but turnip-tops or any other variety of greenstuffs may be used. (A few spring onions boiled and chopped with the greens greatly improve the flavour of this vegetable preparation). After they are cooked, mash the potatoes. Squeeze the greens very dry, chop them fine, and mix them with the potatoes. Add a little butter and a good seasoning of pepper and salt. Pat the mixture into a well-greased mould and let stand in the oven for a few minutes to get quite hot.
Onion? Mace? Semolina? Oh my!
Once this popular dish hit the recipe books as a "savoury accompaniment" in teh 20th century, all sorts of small additions were recommended.
COLCANON (Newcastle 1877): The colcanon was designed to show how cold vegetables may be utilised, and only cabbage and potatoes were used In the lesson. The milk soup was compounded of potatoes, onion, and milk, the two former being boiled until they could be beaten up together, a little chopped parsley and semolina added at the last.
By the 20th Century, Colcanon was "a popular luncheon dish" in Britain.
POTATO COLCANON (England 1909):Boil the potatoes and greens separately. Mash the potatoes. Squeeze the greens dry and chop them quite thinly; then mix them with the potatoes with a little butter, pepper and salt. Put into a mould, buttering it well first, and let it stand in a hot oven for 10 minutes.
COLCANON (Sunderland 1933): One large cabbage, 1 pint mashed potatoes, 2oe. cheese, 2 eggs, 1oz. butter, Seasoning. Boil the cabbage (cold cabbage will do), grate the cheese, beat the eggs. Chop up the cabbage and mix with the potatoes, butter, cheese, beaten eggs and seasoning. Press the mixture into a greased mould. Steam or bake till thoroughly heated. Serve with white sauce and wholemeal bread or oatcakes.
How do you like to eat your Colcannon?
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