Turnip wars at the Potwell Inn

IMG_4815For the most part Madame and me rub along pretty well – we wouldn’t have stayed together for all these decades if we didn’t – but on some matters we do not agree. When we first married there were the garlic wars, I remember. Madame liked garlic whereas I had been nurtured on the bitter doctrine that garlic was “foreign muck” by my mother. The convergence has taken more than five decades and now we eat and grow garlic in four or five varieties and provided I don’t think about it too much and screw up my face, I’ll even eat and enoy it raw. Isn’t it interesting how different things taste once you’ve screwed your face up and decided in advance of actually tasting it that you’re not going to like it?

But turnips are not part of either of our repertoires and I can’t really understand why Madame sowed them in the first place; but she did and, predictably, they turned out to be phenomenally vigorous and have ‘blessed’ us with a crop and an argument – well, perhaps argument is too strong a word, but however I’ve tried to introduce them to the table they’ve stayed – untouched – at the side. I wrote about this problem on November 1st, or- if you want to read that post- search tags for turnips.

But I had a bit  of an experience the first time (really!) I tasted them.  I’d casually thrown one golf ball sized turnip into the steamer and when I tasted it later it was a revelation. I need to explain that in my peculiar mind, flavours are a bit like music – more especially chords in music but occasionally it’s like one unexpected note in a phrase. There’s a fundamental note – let’s say D – and then there are the others stacked around it. And it’s the ‘others’ that introduce depth and complexity to the sound.  This is all beginning to sound unbearably foodie, I know, but hang in there in case something useful comes out at the end!

So my first turnip – or as Nigella might say – ‘the first time I kissed a turnip’ the thing I noticed most was that I didn’t particularly like the fundamental note but that there were other components of the flavour that blew my socks off. You can’t really describe the ‘taste’ of the umami flavour because it functions as a catalyst for all the others, but my little steamed turnip had that quality in abundance.  Here was a prophet without honour it its own country.  Since then I’ve tried a number of ways of cooking and presenting this new flavour to the determined turnip atheist at the Inn, but nothing has worked. Boiled, steamed, sautéed and roasted have all been met with a curl of the lip and a toss of the head.

IMG_4675I just bought a copy of the Noma book on fermentation and for a brief moment I thought my turnip trials might be over but the word does not appear in the index, and so I’m on my own except for this: I Googled the question and came across a fellow obsessive on the Minitab website under the title “How Statistics Got to the Root of My Turnip Problem” . Do look it up if your relationship is beseiged with turnip haters. As for me, I’ll try lacto-fermenting the little monsters.

On the other veg that are coming off the allotment at the moment we are as one.  Carrots, parsnips, potatoes, brussels sprouts, chard, beetroot and all the other joys of winter will probably see us through for another month and then we shall have to start buying some to supplement the thin pickings during the hungry gap.  Better planning for next season is needed. I love winter veg, and I’m not one of those allotmenteers that forsakes the site in September and doesn’t reappear until March. The Potwell Inn serves food the year round.

Meanwhile at the allotment we’ve had a few days of high pressure, meaning early fog clearing to occasional sunny interludes. We were up there a couple of days ago and we were able to work until 4.15 pm in daylight. It’s happening! – although it’s getting darker in the mornings still.  By Twelfth Night the days will be stretching at both ends and with luck and a trip to the sawmill I’ll get the raised beds completely finished, along with a new composting setup.  Then, I think, a bit of an adventure in the campervan beckons.

How do you make a turnip exciting?

IMG_4675Here at the Potwell Inn we take food very seriously indeed.  Who else but Madame and me, for instance, would start the day with an earnest discussion of pesticide residues in carrots. The only satisfaction was in discovering that at least half the time most vegetables contain only legally permitted levels of chemicals. I’d call that a very small satisfaction indeed because I don’t want to be eating food with any levels at all of pesticides or any other ‘cides’.  Call me fussy if you like but I like my food straight. But on a slightly different tack, even here at the Inn, the outside world intrudes from time to time and we’re given cause to think about the way we do things. The discussion about carrots was a byproduct of our continuing debate about living as low impact lives as we can.  So he question is – how can we make the vegetables we can grow as palatable and nutritious as we can. In the course of two days we’ve seen a truly horrifying report of the virtual slave labour being used in Southern Spain to grow vegetables on sale in British supermarkets, and also the shocking fact that soya bean production – much of which is used to feed cattle – is, along with palm oil production, all but destroying virgin forest  across the world. Here’s a right royal conundrum. Where does the balance of good lie if we all stop eating meat, thereby generating huge aditional demand for yet more intensively farmed vegetables and pulses?  I don’t really have any kind of an answer that doesn’t require us all to voluntarily relinquish some things we enjoy.

But I’ve already written about the fact that we can only truly change things if we start with ourselves and I’m deeply put off by this kind of thing:

Written in a friendly and reassuring style, the recipes are simple enough for the home cook to easily follow. Kate will help you be more energetic by starting your day with a bowl of quinoa piña colada granola, washed down with a creamy cashew chai latte and followed by a Thai-style mango slaw or West African peanut soup for lunch. And if you’re hosting guests for dinner, this book will show how to make a roasted eggplant lasagna (or even throw a taco party). Those with a sweet tooth are bound to love her healthier peanut butter chocolate chip cookies and German chocolate cake.

 

That comes from an Independent Newspaper review of ten best vegetarian books in 2017. I would have to buy very ingredient there, with the exception of the aubergine, from a supermarket. Goodness knows how many food miles and unacceptable farming practices across two or perhaps three continents would it take to impress by guests at dinner.  So no thanks.  Not, I think, the solution we’re looking for.

IMG_4678Let’s turn, then, to the Potwell Inn allotment. We have brassicas in many forms, potatoes, winter squashes, onions and leeks, beetroots and swiss chard. Of course we’ve got lots of preserves, pickles, chutneys, sauces and even a bit of wine.  One of the jobs this morning was prepping the last of the summer veg and brining them ready to make a batch of mustard pickle. But no-one could pretend that our available veg this winter represents anything other than a cooking challenge.

So, as I’m sure Winston Churchill would have said if he’d thought of it, every journey starts with a single step. Today I racked my brains trying to think of ways to make our turnips more appetizing – Madame, you see, has an abiding dislike of them although we seem to have grown  a terrific crop which I want to cook before they become inedible.  Old turnips the size of footballs taste horrible and they’re tough as old boots. So Madame remembered a conversation with our neighbouring allotmenteer, who’s a retired professor of French history (it’s a very exclusive allotment!) who said they always boiled them and then fried them in butter. So this morning I ceremonially pressure cooked one small specimen for 10 minutes (too long it turned out), diced it while still hot and then sauteed it in butter. If you look at the picture at the top you’ll see a striking resemblance to a cooked scallop which immediately triggered the thought “prairie oyster”, which, like “rock salmon”, lends a bit of dignity to something quite lowly.  So it occurred to me that if I served this sauteed navet (notice the French inflection) as a ‘garden scallop’ it might just get past her.

It did not get past her! I thought it tasted incredibly rich; the caramelised sweetness seemed to me to be full of umami flavour. When we went recently to the Harvest Celebration meal at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the starter was a lovely combination of diced cooked beetroots served with a dressing on oatmeal biscuits. It was really good, and I think something similar could work with small turnips, diced and sauteed as I cooked them today, and served in combination with something else so that they became the mysterious ‘something intense’ that would make you ask – “what was that?”  I’ll have to think about that one.

Anyway, while all that was going on I also cooked a wholemeal quiche filled with smoked trout and watercress with the usual cream and eggs, so that’s supper sorted. Later we went to the allotment and continued clearing away the remains of the summer veg.  The sadness at the end of the season is more than matched by the sheer beauty of the trees across the park from our flat. I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with a nicer view.  And if that all sounds  bit utopian, bear in mind that we have a huge problem with drugs here in Bath, and in the past few months we’ve had a bit of a county lines war going on outside the window, so along with the trees we’ve had machetes, baseball bats and a stabbing. Life’s rich tapestry I suppose!

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This year we will mostly be growing navets

This season we’ve grown turnips for the first time, and Madame (who doesn’t like them) brought a few of the thinnings back to the flat.  They were tiny – barely 3/4″ across- and I just steamed them in the same pan as the carrots. She still didn’t like them and so I got to eat them all. They were little flavour explosions, an entirely new taste to me at least, and now I’m watching the bed they’re growing in to make sure I get some more before they turn into cattle fodder! Continue reading “This year we will mostly be growing navets”