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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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 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