Thursday, September 30, 2010

How Useful are Turnips?

Unless they are tiny, and called navets, and served with duck, in Paris, by a handsome waiter (with a French accent, naturally), turnips lack both elegance and sex-appeal, methinks. Not that I don’t like them, but we are talking image here. Turnips are most likely to evoke ideas of robust peasant farmers and cold days and thick soup, and they are hardly featured in early cookery books, which describe the food of the well-to-do. Nevertheless, useful things are, well, useful, and we must celebrate useful too, must we not?

The turnip is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the fleshy, globular or spheroidal root of a biennial cruciferous plant, Brassica Rapa, var. depressa, having toothed, somewhat hairy leaves, and yellow flowers, cultivated from ancient times as a culinary vegetable, and for feeding sheep and cattle; also, the plant itself, of which the young shoots (turnip-tops) are frequently boiled as greens.’ As I said, not elegant or sexy, but an ancient, hairy-leaved, animal food. The first quotation in the OED supports its useful, nourishing quality: from Elyot’s Castel of Helth (1533) we read ‘Turnepes beinge well boyled in water, and after with fatte fleshe, norysheth moche.’ I note that the entire list of quotations is devoid of reference to turnip flavour or other deliciousness.

How useful are turnips, really? They turn up in the medicinal chapter of The Queen’s Closet Opened. Incomparable Secrets in Physick, Chirugery, Preserving, Candying, and Cookery (1655)

Syrup of Turneps.
First bake the Turneps in a pot with houshold bread, then press out the liquor between two platters, put a pint of this liquor to half a pint of Hysop water, and as much brown Sugar Candy as will sweeten it, and boyl it to the consistence of a Syrup. It is very good for a Cold or Consumption.

And how much more useful can a recipe be than the following one from the same era – cheap bread for the poor, with medicinal qualities to boot?

Turnip bread.
Take about half a Bushel of middling sort of Turnips, not sticky, but such as will boil soft: being pared and boiled, press out the Water very hard until they are quite dry, beat them in a Mortar, and mix with the Pulp about two pound of fine Wheat-flower, and two ounces of Carraway-seeds; put in a pint, or somewhat more of new Ale-yeast, mould it up as other Bread, and let it be well soaked, and it will not only look, but tast like Bread. This is not only made for saving Charges in poor Families in a dear Year, but of late has been much in esteem for Consumptions, and those troubled with shortness of Breath and Ptissick; being very wholesome and nourishing.
William Salmon’s Household Companion (1695)

Wine is pretty useful too, although I doubt if there were some good shiraz grapes around that this recipe would be popular.

To make Turnip Wine.
Take good many turnips, pare, slice and put them in a cyder press, and press out all the juice very well. To every gallon of juice have three pounds of lump-sugar, have a vessel ready just big enough to hold the juice, put your sugar into a vessel, and also to every gallon of juice half a pint of brandy. Pour in the juice and lay something over the bung for a week, to see if it works. If it does you must not bung it down till it has done working; then stop it close for three months, and draw it off in another vessel. When it is fine, bottle it off.
The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse (1774)

Quotation for the Day.
A degenerate nobleman is like a turnip. There is nothing good of him but that which is underground.
English saying.


Keith said...

Love turnips. Good mashed with potato and pumpkin.

Marisa Raniolo Wilkins said...

you have written about one of my most favourite vegetables - cime di rape.
They are unlike other brassicas and I love their bitterness.
I have written about them on my blog and here are some links:

You may also like to see what I have written about a wild green that tastes very much like cime di rape: