New Season Comber Potato / Comber Earlies
New Season Comber Potato/Comber Earlies is the name given to immature potatoes of the Solanum tuberosum species in the Solanaceae family. New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies are grown from the basic seed varieties catalogued in the national registers of varieties of the Member States of the EU. They must be planted, grown and harvested in the defined area surrounding the town of Comber. The seed tubers are planted in drills from early January each year. This is much earlier than in other parts of Northern Ireland, as the warmer climate and more free draining soil in the designated area means that there is a lower risk of frost than the rest of Northern Ireland.
The plants have dark green foliage and the potatoes themselves are small in size (30-70 mm in diameter) with a round or oval shape. The skin is soft, smooth, thin and loose, with colour depending on variety, with white cream coloured flesh. The flavour is earthy, sweet and nutty, giving a distinctive ‘early’ potato flavour.
The potatoes are sold either loose by weight, or packaged in a range of weights.
Specific steps in production that must take place in the identified geographical area:
New Season Comber potatoes/Comber Earlies must be planted, grown and harvested in the designated area. The seed tubers must be planted in drills from early January each year. The tubers must be harvested between the start of May and the end of July before they are completely mature.
Concise definition of the geographical area:
The designated region is the area originally described as the Hamilton Montgomery lands centred around the town of Comber, comprising Ards Borough Council as far south as Ardkeen on the Ards peninsula and Crossgar and Killyleagh on the western side of Strangford Lough, North Down Borough Council and parts of Castlereagh, Belfast and Down District Council to the east of the road (A7) linking from Carryduff to Killyleagh via Saintfield and Crossgar.
Link with the geographical area:
The soil and climate of the designated area underpin the reputation of the New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies. The area is dominated by Strangford Lough, the largest inlet in the British Isles. The parent material of the soil surrounding the Lough is Triassic red sandstone and gravel. This means that the soil is lighter and free draining. This allows the soil to dry more quickly and heat faster than any other part of Northern Ireland.
Protection offered by the Ards Peninsula to the east and the Mourne Mountains to the south along with the South Eastern location mean that the climate in the designated area is both warmer and drier than other parts of Northern Ireland. Most of the region is low-lying and Strangford Lough has a powerful moderating effect on winter weather making it much milder than elsewhere in Northern Ireland. The soil is therefore warmer and drier, with the greatest amount of sunshine throughout the year (approx 1,500 hrs per annum), and so the growing season for the New Season Comber Potatoes/ Comber Earlies starts before potatoes in the rest of Northern Ireland. It has the longest mean growing season of any part of Northern Ireland of more than 270 days. This climate and topography also means that there is a lower risk of frost in the designated area.
The New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies are characterised and valued by their unique appearance and flavour. The reputation and demand for New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies is underpinned by the fact that they are the earliest potatoes available in Northern Ireland and they have a unique flavour and consistency. They have an earthy, nutty flavour and are instantly recognisable by their soft, thin skin, which is often already peeling at the time of purchase. Due to the soft loose skin, harvesting is completed slowly to minimise damage and to maintain skin integrity. The potatoes are harvested and marketed by the producer within the same day.
Recognition of the ‘New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies’ Protected Geographical Indication is justified on the grounds of its early harvesting. New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies have a reputation of quality across Northern Ireland, particularly across Eastern counties. This reputation exists in the rural areas within and around the designated area, as well as the nearby cities of Belfast and Lisburn, where retailers and caterers will promote New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies in stores and on menus to both local residents and tourists.
The reputation and demand for New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies is underpinned by the fact that they are the earliest potatoes available and they have a unique flavour and consistency. The climate of the designated area means that the soil dries quicker reducing the risk of frost in the winter months. This means that the growing season can start before potatoes in the rest of Northern Ireland. The soil is drier and lighter than in other areas of Northern Ireland. This means that due to the climatic and topographical conditions of the specified area, the tubers can be planted and harvested earlier than anywhere else in Northern Ireland. The ability to harvest New Season Combers/Comber Earlies at such a young age means that their organoleptic properties are qualitatively different from those of mature tubers. The distinctive earthy nutty flavour and characteristic soft smooth skin have earned New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies their unique reputation across Northern Ireland and further afield.
Both early planting and early harvesting made possible in the microclimate of the Comber area contribute to the unique taste and texture of New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies. The plants grow rapidly in the warm temperatures and the tubers bulk up rapidly. Combined with the fact that they are the earliest potatoes in Northern Ireland, such is the reputation that local retailers will report in the press when they receive their first harvest of New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies. In addition following the harvest, consumers are willing to pay a much higher price than for other available potatoes.
The history of the designated area is synonymous with potato growing and is intertwined with the history of two Ulster-Scots families, the Hamilton’s and the Montgomery’s. The early years of this settlement were recorded in ‘The Montgomery Manuscripts’ written by William Montgomery, grandson of Sir Hugh Montgomery. It includes what is believed to be the earliest literary reference to potatoes in Ireland referring to 1606:
‘Her Ladyship had also farms at Greyabbey and Coiner [Comber], as well as at Newtown, both to supply new-comers and her house; and she easily got men for plough and barn, … for which she gave them grass and so much grain per annum, and an house and garden-plat to live on, and some land for flax and potatoes’.
It is the area of the Hamilton Lands and the Montgomery Lands, including Comber, Greyabbey and Newtownards where New Season Comber Potatoes are still grown. The historical link with the original plantation venture is evident in that there are still a number of Hamilton’s growing Comber potatoes.
The Comber area has been synonymous with growing potatoes for many centuries. The first literary reference to potatoes in Ireland (in 1606) refers to land in Comber being given over for growing potatoes. The town continues to promote itself as the home of potatoes in Northern Ireland. The town is promoted by the local council across Northern Ireland as the home of the potato in Northern Ireland with events and festivals such as ‘Spud (Potato) Fest’. Restaurants and hotels across Northern Ireland promote New Season Comber Potatoes/Comber Earlies on their menus as a regional speciality and can be served in a number of ways, the most popular being simply boiled with a helping of butter.
Reference: The European Commission