II’ve been in the grip of something of a turnip obsession for some time, a fixation sparked – I can hardly believe I’m writing this – by the former Agriculture Secretary, Therese Coffey, who responded to the lettuce shortage in our supermarkets earlier this year with the instruction that instead of longing for out-of-season tomatoes, we should all learn to “appreciate” turnips. I know: according to the decrees, this was laughable, even before we learned that the UK’s biggest turnip grower, which also happened to be in Coffey’s Suffolk constituency, had recently abandoned the crop, disheartened by the supermarkets’ refusal to pay more for vegetables in the face of rising costs. But I still have to admit it works for me. Since then, I’ve been thinking about turnips more than is natural or entirely reasonable.
Such an obsession obviously involves finding good new things to do with turnips, a quest that has brought me back to books I’ve owned for what seems like forever (I heartily recommend Colin Spencer’s Vegetable delights, published the year I graduated from college, which includes an elegant—and delicious—recipe for Turnips with Walnuts, Orange, and Parmesan). But most of all, it made me worry about the confusing search question. Even as supermarkets report a rise in sales of cheaper meats such as beef cheek and chicken liver, the poor old turnip continues to be denied a comeback. At farmers markets, many greengrocers, and most restaurants, it’s Wally (as in Where’s Wally?) of vegetables. Find one if you can.
Why so unfashionable? In France, turnip it is really valuable. But I finally have a proper answer to this question. in Filled, her fantastically well-researched and hugely interesting new history of feast and famine in Britain, Penn Vogler attributes the slow death of the turnip to (and here, for lack of space, I must simplify a little) radical improvements in farming techniques. Once landowners realized, sometime in the early 18th century, that turnips could be grown at scale, even on sandy soil, and stored over the winter (which meant they could feed on animals that would otherwise have to be slaughtered), it was game over: the old connection between humans growing, cooking, and eating turnips was severed, if not completely lost. In the long run, they will henceforth be considered fodder, not food; something for the barn, not the dinner table.
What a waste that was, and not least because such a fall from grace only increased Britain’s fondness for meat even more. Vogler writes fascinatingly about a Tudor priest named Andrew Bord, whose 1542 book A Compendious Regiment or Dietary of Healtheturnips are considered almost medicinal, useful both for appetite and for, uh, increasing the “man’s seed.”
Later writers, including the famous diarist and gardener John Evelyn, vouched for the delightful sweetness of the many garden varieties of turnips (some of which were eaten raw) and provided countless recipes for them, including the classic French dish, duck with turnips and pot pie mashed and squeezed turnip. Charles I’s favorite “salat” was turnip tops boiled like asparagus, while another popular cookbook from the early 18th century recommended cutting fried turnips into shapes like dice or roosters to better decorate the edges of plates for soup.
All this was a revelation to me; from now on I intend to bore people with my newfound knowledge of Enlightenment crop rotation and its sad consequences. But alas, I can’t say it did much to alleviate my odd concern. The opposite actually. In a minute I’ll go downstairs to the kitchen, where five virgin turnips – plump, purple and white, like miniature members of the House of Lords – await my attention (yes, I’m cheating: these are small, “spring” turnips, imported from Portugal, not large British winter). in Filled, Vogler notes a Victorian recipe for swede turnips with ginger, a combination that matches Spencer’s belief that the same spice lends itself to the turnip’s mild, radish-like pepperiness—so maybe I’ll try that. The vegetables are stewed and served with butter sauce, grated ginger, honey, juice and the zest of one lemon. How wonderful: it doesn’t look like a turnip at all.
Kitchen Person by Rachel Cook (W&N, £20). To buy a copy for £17.60, go to guardianbookshop.com