Monday, January 11, 2010

Queer Vegetables.

I almost gave this post the header ‘Queer Gear’, as in the title of one of today’s sources – Queer Gear: How to Buy and Cook Exotic Fruit and Vegetables, (1986) by Carolyn Heal and Michael Allsop, but I thought perhaps it might attract some disappointed readers. It is a strange title, I think, considering that the word ‘queer’ was already well and truly hijacked by, or applied to, the gay community by the 1980’s. Actually it was applied in the early part of the nineteenth century, in a derogatory sense – by the 1980’s it had all but lost its negative implications and in some circles was an adjective of pride.

The authors of the book clearly meant ‘queer’ as in one of its sixteenth century definitions as referring to something strange or exotic. I am not sure how they selected the vegetables and fruits for inclusion. ‘Exotic’ clearly depends on location: I guess mangoes and custard apples might have been ‘exotic’ in England in the 1980’s, but figs and horseradish and garlic – I don’t think so.

I do like discovering previously unknown foods, and re-discovering forgotten ones. Previous stories have covered crosnes, salsify and scorzonera, and mangelwurzels, but there must surely be many more delights skulking in the culinary history wings.

There was nothing particularly tempting to be found in Queer Gear, but it set me on the trail of looking for other sources on forgotten vegetables. I found (in the wonderful Internet Archive) The Book of Rarer Vegetables (1906) – which is surely a far less provocative title. Aubergine and artichokes may have been rare-ish in Edwardian England, but why include dandelion and horseradish? I was temporarily waylaid by Couve Tronchuda, but it turns out to be sea-kale. Eventually I selected for your delectation Scolymus and Sweet Cicely.

“I have seen this plant grown in this country under the name of GoldenThistle — doubtless that appellation applied to its golden coloured flower heads. These are large, and the growths attain a height of 3 feet. The genus is a small one. There are three species, and the variety, Hispanicus, or the Spanish, is the form grown as a vegetable; it is often known as the vegetable Oyster plant, as the flavour of the roots is supposed, somewhat to resemble oysters. On the continent, especially in Spain, the roots are cultivated in the same way as the Scorzonera, and are considered to be quite as good. The leaves and stalks of the plants are also eaten as Cardoons by the people of Salamanca, but they should be well grown to be equal to the Cardoon. The flowers also are used for various purposes, one being for the adulteration of Saffron.”

The author then goes on to give planting and cultivation advice for scolymus, which is way beyond the scope of this blog. The cookery advice is a little weak, the author merely suggesting that it cooks like salsify – then referring the reader to a book on asparagus.

Sweet Cicely
Sweet Cicely (Scandix odorata) is a plant rarely seen in gardens at the present day, but well worth culture. It is valuable in all preparations in which the flavour of Aniseed is required. By many persons the smell is objected to; as both the leaves and other portions of the plant smell so strongly of the above herb, it is disliked. It is much more cultivated in France and other portions of the continent than in this country, and, of course, from the market point of view it cannot be termed a profitable vegetable. The leaves are mostly used mixed with salads, and the roots also are edible, these being used in soups and with cooked meats.

Again, the author follows with good gardening advice, and minimalist cooking advice – it being merely suggested that sweet cicely roots be prepared exactly as chervil.

Thankfully, he does have some more definitive advice on the cooking of chervil.

To Boil Chervil

Wash and brush the roots, but do not cut them. Place them in a pan, pour over them sufficient boiling water to cover them, and let them simmer for about an hour and a half.

To Fry Chervil

Cook the roots as above for about an hour, then cut into long shreds and fry in butter.

Quotation for the Day.

A vegetable garden in the beginning looks so promising and then after all little by little it grows nothing but vegetables, nothing but vegetables.
Gertrude Stein.


Side The Cat said...

Would you possibly venture to guess the identity of the vanished Roman delicacy Sylphium?

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Side the Cat - this is as I understand it (the extract is from my book Menus from History)

"One great difficulty in interpreting - and especially in attempting to recreate Roman meals is that two essential ingredients of the time are uncertain. A plant called laser (or silphium) which was much used by the Romans is now extinct. The reasons are not clear, and it appears to have happened very suddenly. The plant was harvested from the wild in north Africa, it was not cultivated. It was perhaps a combination of over-harvesting and a bad season which meant that one year it simply did not come up again, which was devastating for communities that had an economic dependence on it. We can never be certain what laser was, but most authorities believe it was similar to asafoetida (Ferula assafoetida) which is used in Indian cookery today."

Sid The Cat said...

A fascinating mystery...especially since asafoetida is supposed to be used in very small quantities for an enhancing experience. The Romans must have greatly cherished off-flavors.