“Did you ever eat Colcannon, made from lovely pickled cream?
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream.
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the melting flake
Of the creamy, flavoured butter that your mother used to make?
Yes you did, so you did, so did he and so did I.
And the more I think about it sure the nearer I’m to cry.
Oh, wasn’t it the happy days when troubles we had not,
And our mothers made Colcannon in the little skillet pot.”
So goes the traditional Irish song about this wonderful potato dish – there cannot be many food stuffs that have their own song ! – and I guess there are many takes on this classic potato and cabbage dish. Its Irish name is cál ceannann, meaning “white-headed cabbage”, and it is a traditional dish mainly consisting of mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage.
It is similar to the Irish dish Champ which is a dish of mashed potatoes, moistened with milk and butter and flavoured with chopped onions or scallions or even nettle tops (much underused veg! See my Nettle Frittata).
The earliest reference i can find to it is by one William Bulkely from Anglesey who in his diary of 31st October 1735 made two journeys to Dublin and recorded that he:
‘Dined and supped upon a shoulder of mutton roasted and what they call Coel Callan, which is cabbage boiled, potatoes, and parsnips, all this mixed together. They eat well enough and this is a dish always had on this kingdom on this night.’
Apparently, colcannon was used on All Hallow’s Eve for marriage divination. Charms hidden in the bowls of colcannon were portents of a marriage proposal should a lucky unmarried girl find one. One other marvellously bizarre tradition was for a young girl to stuff a sock with colcannon and hang it on the handle of their front door. They believed that the first man through the door would become their husband. Could have led to some interesting situations and possible intermarriages….also must have ruined the socks!
The dish came over to English shores in the 18th century and oddly became a favourite of the upper classes. In time the English version morphed into bubble and squeak, which is more of a fry up of left overs rather than this purpose built spud dish.
It is a very hearty and warming dish and you can twiddle with it to your hearts content – but this is a version I particularly like – I had it the other night with a honey and mustard glazed hock of ham and it brought out the Irish in me! (My great grandparents were form Derry). I am sure you must have tried this or something like it but if not, give it a whirl. It is a delicious way to eat potatoes and greens.
And versatile… and it can accompany all sorts – and ’tis just as gorgeous on its lonesome!
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, finely sliced
250g mashed potato (I used about 6 to 8 potatoes so play it by ear)
50g unsalted butter
30ml double cream
250g Savoy cabbage, blanched and sliced (or you can used greens or kale)
1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
Salt and ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and fry for 8-10 minutes, or until softened and golden-brown.
In a large bowl, mix together the mashed potato, butter, cream, blanched cabbage and mustard until well combined and season, to taste, with salt and black pepper.
Transfer the potato mixture to the frying pan with the onions in and press down to form a large potato ‘cake’. Fry for 4-5 minutes, or until crisp and golden-brown on one side. Turn over, using a plate if necessary to help you, and fry on the other side for a further 4-5 minutes, or until crisp and golden-brown on both sides. (This last bit is tricky – in the end if it does break up, it will taste just as good even if it doesn’t look as pretty!)
As I said before I used it to accompany a hock of ham- and i also made a taleggio cheese sauce which really, really went well with the ham and colcannon. I just popped 450 ml of double cream and a clove of garlic into a small pan with a bay leaf. I brought it to a simmer then added a 100 gm slice of taleggio and let it melt. A stunning sauce to go with a stunning and simple potato dish!
Up the Irish!