Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

'Nip and Tuck

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

'Nip and Tuck

Article excerpt

FOOD

BEE WILSON considers the sweet virtue of the parsnip

Advocates of a raw-food diet would do well to contemplate the parsnip. In its natural state, it is white and unyielding, hardly more appetising than balsa wood. Baked, though, its woody flesh turns unctuous and sweet, crisp with the caramel of the sugar in its sap. It would be hard to argue that the great gardener in the sky, if you believe in such an entity, intended the parsnip to remain uncooked. In its wild state, parsnip is inedible; even the cultivated kind need culinary assistance. Sir Keneim Digby, in 1669, thought that raw parsnips were "the best food for tame Rabets", rendering their flesh sweet. I can believe it. But since we humans don't as a rule eat salt lick and bran mash, nor should we follow our friends the bunnies in munching raw roots.

Carrots, celeriac and beetroot are all pleasing when grated and dressed. Potatoes, turnips and parsnips, on the other hand, are not. Yet these bulky roots have proved more useful as staple foods than their colourful counterparts. The edible parsnip (pastinaca sativa) has been cultivated in western Europe since ancient times, though the Romans, oddly, didn't always distinguish it from the carrot. Before the arrival of the potato, parsnips were an important source of everyday starch, though their peculiar flavour must have become rather tedious. They have too insistent and mouth-filling a taste to act, like potato, as a backdrop. Only think how disgusting baked parsnip with caviar would be; or mashed parsnip with truffle oil; or salt and vinegar flavour parsnip crisps.

The great point of parsnip is its especial sweetness, a quality used in puddings and sweetmeats in medieval times, when sugar and honey were rare and expensive. Parsnip was the Nutrasweet of its day - a bitter and slightly unsatisfying stand-in for sugar. …

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