Seasonal Plant Portrait - the Turnip (Brassica rapa)

Seasonal Plant Portrait - the Turnip (Brassica rapa)

The underdog of the vegetable world which wards off evil spirits, has strong superfood powers and was weaponised at political rallies. Plant lovers, read on!

The origin of the turnip is a bit of a mystery, but seeds have been discovered dating back to the neolithic era, probably growing in the wild in either Europe or Asia. Back then turnips were long and spindly but humans tinkered with the genus and created the rounder, fuller variety we know today. By the first century AD, Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer, declared them one of the most important vegetables of the time, prized for its spicy leaves and the oil from its seeds. 

Despite such praise, the turnip seems to have been shunned by the rich and wealthy of Roman society, and became seen as a poor-man’s food, a reputation it has struggled to shake even to this day. Indeed turnips were the weapon of choice to throw at unpopular speakers at political rallies and eventually the term ‘turnip’ began to have other connotations, such as being a country bumpkin or even a bit of an idiot (courtesy of Dickens). 

Why so much hate towards the turnip? Granted it is a weird looking creature, all hairy and wrinkly. But, like many vegetables, it holds plant superpowers. Part of the cruciferae family (with broccoli, kale and others) it has one of the highest concentrations of glucosinolates - indicated by the spicy and sour taste - which indicates strong antioxidant and anticancer properties. It has been used in folk medicine in many forms -  as powdered seed, poultices, boiled with lard and made into a salve to target different types of cancer. 

It has not always been totally out of favour though - in the 1700s turnips reversed the practice of killing off all livestock before winter (as the cost of winter hay feeding was too high). Turnips provided an excellent substitute that grew all winter. meanwhile the Celtic people in Ireland used to hollow out turnips, put embers inside and use them as lanterns which were said to ward off evil spirits- the ritual from which our Halloween pumpkin carving emerged. 

I like to use turnips as I would potatoes - mashed with plenty of butter or in stews and curries. It soaks up all of the flavours and adds an earthiness to every dish. Alternatively it is brilliant grated or thinly sliced into a salad. Try it with dill and a yoghurt dressing - for a delicious crunchy, pungent and sweet salad. Pictured here are the lovely purple top turnips from Fanfield Farm who deliver veggies to us from their farm not half a mile away. 

What do you think about turnips? Do they deserve a seat at our table? Or do you suffer from childhood turnip trauma and would rather go hungry than subject yourself to its charms?

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