Adopt your best Irish accent and repeat after me: potato, potato, potato. Got it? Right, now we’re in the right frame of mind to talk colcannon, one of the myriad variations on the humble ’tater, brought to us by those spud-savvy Irish folk. This combination of crushed potatoes and wilted kale or cabbage, enriched with butter and milk or cream and enhanced by the subtle allium flavour of spring onion or leek, has been around for centuries.
The word itself is from the Gaelic cál ceannann, which translates literally as white-headed cabbage. There’s some speculation that early incarnations were simply a mixture of brassica and allium, with the potato added later. In The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson cites the earliest Irish reference to the dish – complete with mashed potato – dating back to a diary entry written by William Bulkely on 31 October 1735, in which he describes the dish: “…what they called the Coel Callon, which is cabbage boiled, potatoes and parsnips, all this mixed together.”
At this time, the dish was associated with Halloween festivities, when charms were hidden in bowls of colcannon. It was thought that should an unmarried girl be lucky enough to find one, a marriage proposal would follow. Other maidens hung socks filled with colcannon from their front door-handles, believing the first man through the door would be their future husband. Another custom was to leave a bowl of colcannon out on All Saints Day (the day following Halloween), with a knob of butter on top for the fairies and ghosts.
Omens and superstition aside, colcannon makes the perfect winter comfort food. After all, what’s not to love about what’s essentially a twist on the staple of mashed potato?
As with all mash, it’s important to use a floury potato for a perfectly fluffy result – we’ve opted for King Edward but if you can’t find these at your local greengrocer, good old sebago potatoes make a fine substitute.
When you get to the mashing stage, bear in mind that you’re after a rough mash, not a silky smooth purée. Think rustic, not refined. The brassica element comes in the form of kale, its chlorophyll flavour and robust texture adding to the appeal of the finished dish, although cabbage would be a no-less-true addition, and equally – though differently – delicious. The sweet pungency of allium adds the final flourish, be it onion, shallot, leek or garlic. We’ve gone for the sweet subtlety of spring onion, stirred through and also scattered on top for good measure.
And let’s not forget the butter, waistline be damned. It wouldn’t be colcannon without it, and while it’s traditional to serve a knob on top, we’ve gone for a gloriously golden pool of the melted stuff instead, all the better to swirl through while you eat. You can’t beat the Irish and their way with potatoes, to be sure.