Wednesday Weed – Turnip

Dear Readers, when I got these turnips in my vegetable box last week, I admit to being stumped, because of all the roots in the world, this is the one I like least. In Scotland, a ‘neep’ is a completely different animal – in England we’d call it a swede, in the US it’s a rutabaga, and whatever it’s called I’m  rather fond it, especially when mashed and served with ‘stovies’, a delicious mix of leftover meat, potatoes, onions and gravy. In fact, swedes probably merit a blogpost all to themselves, so I shall move on (with regret) for now.

Photo One by By No machine-readable author provided. Rainer Zenz assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1356751

A swede or a neep, depending on where you live (or indeed a rutabaga) (Photo One)

I have a long and unhappy history with turnips, however. Back when I was a young thing and was working in Dundee, I had a blond Adonis of a boyfriend who was very into self-sufficiency. One of the things he grew was turnips, and when they were in season that is basically what we ate. There were turnips and broccoli for lunch (with additional earwigs which we where meant to pick out and put to one side). There was turnip and blackberry jam, following a war-time recipe. There was turnip and blackberry pie with custard made with wholemeal bread flour (don’t ask). There was turnip curry (which at least disguised the taste). Suffice it to say that turnips became my nemesis and I have never willingly or knowingly eaten one since. But here they are, and I am not going to waste the poor darlings.

Anyhow, what is a turnip anyway? Its Latin name is Brassica rapa subspecies rapa, and the wild plant is another of those mustardy cabbage plants with yellow flowers that are so confusing to the amateur botanist.

Photo Two By TeunSpaans - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96733

Wild turnip (Brassica rapa) (Photo Two)

The name ‘turnip’ rather charmingly comes from the word ‘turn’ (as in ‘turn on a lathe/make round) and ‘neep’ from napus, the Latin word for vegetable – so, ’round vegetable’. The poet Sappho apparently called one of her lovers Gongýla, which means ‘turnip’, and I have to admit that when I was arranging the vegetables for the photo they reminded me so much of a pair of breasts that I had to turn one of them at an angle to avoid offending anyone’s modesty. Clearly, this lockdown is affecting my brain.

 

Turnips actually have a double whammy when it comes to food – the green tops can be eaten as a substitute for spinach or chard, although they have a punchier, more mustardy flavour. In fact, some varieties of turnip are grown solely for their greens, and I’m sure that they’re all the better for it – broccoli rabe, bok choy and Chinese cabbage are all actually turnips. The root is apparently milder when cooked (but still, I would argue, not mild enough), but turnips are also often used as animal feed.  In 1700 Viscount Townsend, a Whig statesman, retired to his country house and became involved in agriculture, no doubt to the delight of the local yeomanry. He did, however,  invent a four-year crop rotation system featuring turnips, barley, wheat and clover, and became an enthusiastic proponent of using turnips as a year-round animal feed. Such was his association with the vegetable that he became know as Charles ‘Turnip’ Townsend.

Photo Two By Godfrey Kneller - one or more third parties have made copyright claims against Wikimedia Commons in relation to the work from which this is sourced or a purely mechanical reproduction thereof. This may be due to recognition of the "sweat of the brow" doctrine, allowing works to be eligible for protection through skill and labour, and not purely by originality as is the case in the United States (where this website is hosted). These claims may or may not be valid in all jurisdictions.As such, use of this image in the jurisdiction of the claimant or other countries may be regarded as copyright infringement. Please see Commons:When to use the PD-Art tag for more information., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6363752

Charles ‘Turnip’ Townsend (18 April 1674 – 21 June 1738), probably not wearing his gardening clothes (Photo Three)

While turnip greens are high in Vitamins K, A and C. the root is hardly a nutritional powerhouse, containing 14% of an adult’s daily requirement of Vitamin C and rather a lot of water and carbohydrate. Nonetheless, some people have leapt into the fray and tried to make something of it. Its radish-y qualities mean that it is sometimes grated and used in salads. I note that the Good Food recipe site has turnips in marmalade, turnips with duck, crispy salmon with turnip, mandarin and noodle salad and turnip tartiflette . I am going to put my turnips into a red lentil and turnip chilli from one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s books, but as my husband’s stomach can’t tolerate chilli I shall be splashing on the pepper sauce after cooking. If you have any failsafe turnip recipes that don’t taste too much of turnip, do let me know.

Photo Four from https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/marmalade-braised-turnips

Marmalade glazed turnips (Photo Four)

There seems to be something essentially comedic about the poor old turnip. For example, in an attempt to puncture what’s perceived as the po-faced nature of the Turner Prize ( the UK’s chief prize for ‘modern’ art of all kinds), some wag dreamed up the Turnip Prize. The prize is given to exhibits that display a lack of effort, and which are rubbish, though I also detect a very British love of puns. Some of its winners have included a builder’s hard hat with elf’s pointy ears attached (‘Elfin Safety’), a lump of dough with toy children embedded in it (‘Children in Knead’) and a pole painted black (‘Pole Dark’). The prize is, of course, a lump of wood with a turnip nailed to it.

Nonetheless, the turnip has also played a more serious role in history. During the winter of 1916-17, the German populace were close to starvation. The harvest of the potato, a staple food in the country, failed and this, combined with the Allied blockade, the seizure of farm horses for the army, the diversion of nitrogen fertilizers to make explosives and the lack of agricultural manpower as people were drafted into the army made for a perfect storm. The government attempted to substitute turnips, normally used for animal feed, for the lost potatoes, but turnips have a much lower nutritional value, and mortality, particularly among women, increased by 30% in 1917. Furthermore, it’s believed that the malnutrition also had a lasting effect on the immune systems of those who survived, making them more vulnerable to the so-called Spanish flu pandemic which ravaged the world right after the war. The Germans call this period ‘The Turnip Winter’, and a loathing of turnips lingers to this day amongst the older population.

Strangely enough though, just across the border in Austria, the municipality of Keutsch am Zee features a very splendid turnip on its coat of arms, probably a nod to the agriculture which was the chief source of income for the area until tourism came along.

Photo Five By Fahnen-Gärtner GmbH, Mittersill, AUSTRIA - Source: "Fahnen-Gärtner GmbH, Mittersill"This image shows a flag, a coat of arms, a seal or some other official insignia. The use of such symbols is restricted in many countries. These restrictions are independent of the copyright status., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1049906

The Coat of Arms of Keutsch am Zee (Photo Five)

And finally, did you ever wonder what people made Halloween lanterns out of before pumpkins arrived from the New World? Well, again it’s our old friend the humble turnip, though I suspect the larger swede is more often involved. Apparently these lanterns are still made out of turnips on the Isle of Man, and in Ireland and Scotland (so do let me know if the pumpkin has made inroads into lantern-making in your neck of the woods – I do suspect that pumpkins are much easier to carve).

Photo Six By Bodrugan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22472756

A traditional Cornish Jack-O-Lantern carved, as I suspected, from a swede (Photo Six)

And so, a poem. How delighted I was to find that Seamus Heaney had written a poem about a turnip snedder, a machine used to slice up the turnips to make feed for the animals. Here is one from Sentry Hill in County Antrim, from an excellent blog by Anne Hailes – well worth a look.

Photo Seven from https://www.annehailesblog.co.uk/2018/04/29/sunday-blog-water-water-everywhere-and-a-good-dollup-of-sunshine/

Wesley Bonar, Museums and Heritage Officer at Sentry Hill with a turnip-snedder (Photo Seven)

THE TURNIP-SNEDDER by Seamus Heaney
In an age of bare hands
and cast iron,
 
the clamp-on meat-mincer,
the double flywheeled water-pump,
 
it dug its heels in among wooden tubs
and troughs of slops,
 
hotter than body heat
in summertime, cold in winter
 
as winter’s body armour,
a barrel-chested breast-plate
 
standing guard
on four braced greaves.
 
‘This is the way that God sees life,’
it said, ‘from seedling-braird to snedder,’
 
as the handle turned
and turnip-heads were let fall and fed
 
to the juiced-up inner blades,
‘This is the turnip-cycle,’
 
as it dropped its raw sliced mess,
bucketful by glistering bucketful.

Photo Credits

Photo One By No machine-readable author provided. Rainer Zenz assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1356751

Photo Two By TeunSpaans – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96733

Photo Three By Godfrey Kneller –  Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6363752

Photo Four from https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/marmalade-braised-turnips

Photo Five By Fahnen-Gärtner GmbH, Mittersill, AUSTRIA – Source: “Fahnen-Gärtner GmbH, Mittersill”This image shows a flag, a coat of arms, a seal or some other official insignia. The use of such symbols is restricted in many countries. These restrictions are independent of the copyright status., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1049906

Photo Six By Bodrugan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22472756

Photo Seven from https://www.annehailesblog.co.uk/2018/04/29/sunday-blog-water-water-everywhere-and-a-good-dollup-of-sunshine/

14 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Turnip

  1. Susan

    I can vaguely recall my mum periodically making mashed carrots and turnips when I was a child. The comparative sweetness of the carrots helped to disguise the taste of the turnips. 🙂 I have to confess I haven’t once eaten this dish in the many years since, and haven’t missed it.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I imagine that the carrots would have helped for sure. I’ve never tried roasting them either, but my red lentil and turnip chilli at least made them remotely edible…

      Reply
  2. Anne

    I share your distaste of turnips for we often had them boiled when I was a child. I have never grown them or served them to anyone I love.

    Reply
  3. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    Loved those Turnip Prize winners! Also I’m surprised that Baldrick didn’t get a mention. (Though maybe Blackadder never made it outside the UK). As you say, a funny old vegetable, which nobody willingly eats these days surely?

    Reply
  4. FEARN

    What a great job you have done on this brassica! Swedes (neeps) represent the gastranomic peak of attainment in clapshot (accompanied by haggis). Brassicas are a very wide church depending on which bit is swelling (curds, florets, sprouts, stems, stalks, leaves, ribs or roots). Have you posted on Jerusalem atrtichoke? They really are a rampant weed once they get going. Also they are shunned following their use as famine food across Europe: They were one food that was not limited by the ration. They are also windier!

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Yes, Jerusalem artichokes are tricky little beggars – so lovely in a soup, but so tricky to digest. Plus, the baby ones look remarkably like grubs to me. But the flavour is divine..

      Reply
  5. Mary

    What a brilliant article!

    Couldn’t agree more about the turnip challenge. But I’ve learned to love ’em, personally. Roasted in chunks, with parsnips, they’re actually nice. And I’ve been using them in panackerty/pan haggerty to fill the potato role: Parboil and dry off, slice thinly, use to tile over the corned-beef mixture in several (butter-enhanced) layers, and bake like a shepherd’s pie.

    Just restrict contact with boiling water, and they’ll be fine. Boiled, mashed carrot-and-turnip is enough to put anyone off for life.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I actually made a turnip and red lentil chilli courtesy of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. The recipe included 2 teaspoonfuls of sugar and I think they might have made all the difference..

      Reply
  6. Lynn D.

    I enjoy cream of turnip soup (leeks, chicken stock, turnips, potatoes and milk). But I agree that rutabagas (I live in the U.S.) win hands down. I had an eccentric cousin who loved them so much that he would paint “rutabagas” on walls and mailboxes. This was long before graffiti was much of a thing, even before spray paint

    Reply
  7. Ann Bronkhorst

    I fear your Dundee Adonis might be working for the Good Food Recipe site. You have had a lucky escape.

    Reply

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