Magazine article The Spectator

Partial to Parsnips

Magazine article The Spectator

Partial to Parsnips

Article excerpt

While it may be a truth universally acknowledged that fine words butter no parsnips, I have to say that in my experience parsnips are seldom cooked in butter. Since I understood the saying to be attributed to Sir Walter Scott, it could be that buttered parsnips are, or were, popular north of the border. Further research, however, reveals that Scott was referring to 'a Southern proverb' and that the expression (with 'faire' instead of 'fine') was in use in the first half of the 17th century. Perhaps Dot Wordsworth will have something more to say on the matter.

The parsnip is a quintessentially British vegetable, of ancient origin, which was known as pastenak (a corruption of the Latin pastinaca) in mediaeval times. But it has never been as widely enjoyed in the rest of Europe. The French use it only to flavour soups and stocks - Larousse gives it three dismissive lines - and it is quite a surprise to learn that they have actually got a word for parsnip (panais). In Italy they feed parsnips to the pigs of Parma in order to sweeten their ham. However, in the New World parsnips, having reached the east coast of America soon after the Mayflower, were grown by the native Indians (who also discovered and cultivated what we now know as Jerusalem artichokes); and Americans have long been partial to them.

But they are not universally popular in our kitchens. It has always slightly mystified me that some people, while expressing a liking for root vegetables, will go on to say ,except parsnips'. Is it their sweetness, or flouriness, or nutty flavour which is objectionable, or is it that, as suggested by a friend who normally tucks into everything put in front of him, they have an odd aftertaste? I think that the taste depends on the size of the parsnips, how they are cooked, and at what time of year they are eaten.

As every gardener knows, parsnips should not be dug until they have had a good frost. But they have been available in shops since early autumn. Last week I came across 'brushed' parsnips, which have not been washed but instead put through brush rollers to get the worst of the soil off them. Some cuts and bruises to the vegetables may go unnoticed, but they are quite a bit cheaper than those that have been property cleaned. …

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