Opinion

FOOD MATTERS: Turnips often part of traditional Burns night supper

Rabbie Burns night stirs memories of simple country life at my father’s village, a treasured relief from the frequent boredom of living a middle class life in the city.

My grandmother’s soup was usually based on a poor cut of meat, accompanied by huge chunks of potato, carrot and turnip, thickened with barley, seasoned probably just with some salt and maybe pepper.

She was the wife of the village butcher, so had to make do with the worst meat. I loved that soup, and the way we grandchildren were allowed to slurp up the broth and hold back the tender, fragrant vegetables to eat with the meat course, the cheap cut now being tender and moist.

We would mash up the vegetables, each contributing their particular flavour, in some of the last of the broth.

I never thought much about turnips, other than knowing they are the purple root, not the yellow rutabaga, and would not have dreamed of eating them raw, but I knew one more way in which they were delicious and that is the way made famous in the fixed menu for a Burns night supper: chappit tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnips), accompanying the “great chieftain o’ the pudden race”, the haggis.

To this day, when I get a good turnip, not too big to have grown bitter and coarse, my choice is to pare it, boil it tender, then mash it with salt and butter. The result is a silky, moist heap, with a unique flavour that makes a fine accompaniment to any meal, containing far less calories than potato (go easy on the butter) and high in folic acid and vitamin C.

Turnips played a vital role in one of the innovations of the Middle Ages. Previously most cattle were slaughtered at the onset of winter because there would be no forage for them. But turnips grown for winter forage made it possible to keep the herds alive year-round.

The Scottish winter festival of Samhain, later re-named Hallowe’en, led to a new use for turnips by children acting the legend of Jack O’Lantern, a story probably spun from the phenomenon of the mysterious marsh fires sometimes called will o’ the wisps.

Turnips were hollowed out, features carved in them, and lit with candles. In my childhood, even city fathers would make turnip lanterns, and as the evening wore on, especially in parties in rented halls, there was a pervasive smell of roasting turnip as the candles cooked on.

Probably the pumpkin Jack o’Lanterns carved since the 19th century in North America, were the brainchildren of Celtic immigrants looking for a better medium than the tough, dense turnip.

 

Marjorie Stewart is chairwoman of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be reached at marjorieandalstewart@shaw.ca.

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