Nicola here, and today I am talking about food, and in particular historic vegetables. If you look at old menus from hundreds of years ago – for a banquet at Hampton Court Palace for King Henry VIII, for example – there are plenty of dishes that might cause us to shudder. “Meat tile” anyone? It consists of chicken first simmered and then sautéed, served with a spicy sauce of crayfish tails, almonds and… toast. Then there are pies with songbirds in them, lampreys in sauce… It’s all a matter of taste. One thing I had not realised, however, was that our ancestors ate vegetables that have completely disappeared from the menu today. I assumed that vegetables had evolved in that we eat the same things although they may look and taste different as a result of being grown commercially. However, I have never met anyone who has eaten a skirret.
“The sweetest, whitest and most pleasant of roots,” wrote gentleman gardener John Worlidge in 1677 of the skirret, a relative of the parsnip. The skirret was brought to Britain by the Romans and was popular in monastic gardens and on the Tudor table. Not only did it add flavour and sweetness to dishes, it was also considered medicinal. Physicians felt it was a good restorative and excellent for weak stomachs. It was also whispered to be “an effectual friend to Dame Venus,” an aphrodisiac. It has a sweet flavour on initial tasting that gives way to a carrot-type taste and ends on a peppery note.
Skirret’s downfall was that it was a slow grower and could not be cultivated as a commercial crop. Now, however, it has been re-introduced into the gardens at Hampton Court. It needs a rich soil and doesn’t mind the cold, which is one reason why it was popular in Scotland where it was known as a crummock. It also likes a lot of rain and grows wild on river banks, where it is known as the water parsnip. The flowers are like cow parsley, white, frothy and scented. At Hampton Court they serve it raw, like carrot, to get the full benefit of the delicate sweetness, and also fried in butter and garlic. The Tudors, who enjoyed a good “sallat” also used it instead of spring onion or radish in their salads. Perhaps we’ll see the skirret making a return to the Christmas table in place of parsnips.
Like skirret, the scorzonera was a very popular medieval vegetable and had at one point been suggested as an (unsuccessful) cure for the bubonic plague. A relative of the salsify, they have a similar flavour to artichokes. I mentioned the scorzonera to a friend who is a landscape gardener and he was very knowledgeable about it but it isn't on sale in the shops in the UK.
A candidate for “prettiest historical vegetable” has to be the strawberry spinach, which was brought to England by German monks
in the seventeenth century. These were also used as a salad vegetable and the pink flowers taste like malted milk biscuits! I'd be very happy to give that a try.
A Roman vegetable that never made it as far north as Britain was the cardoon, a thistle-type plant like an artichoke. It was a Roman custom to dip tender, young cardoon stems in a simple sauce of warm olive oil and butter and eat them raw. The bigger stems were typically baked, steamed, or fried. This sounds delicious and with warmer temperatures in northern Europe now there is a move to introduce the cardoon into Britain –only 2000 years after everyone further south had it!
It isn’t just “lost” fruits and vegetables that are being cultivated again but special varieties of familiar ones that are becoming more popular. Like the skirret, the Brighstone Bean has a colourful history. Shipwrecked on the Isle of Wight in the 18th century, the seeds were found on a beach and it was cultivated there by gardeners even when it fell out of favour in the rest of Britain. It’s small, a mottled purple colour and has a very distinctive taste. From heirloom tomatoes to squashes, apples and peaches it seems that the old flavours are making a comeback.
I was one of those people who wasn’t keen on their vegetables as a child and I wasn’t much better with fruit. I hated peas, sprouts, turnips and broad beans. Fortunately these days I like a lot of salad, vegetables and fruit, especially the old varieties like quinces. What about you? Have you ever eaten skirret? Would you try it if it was on the menu? Or do you have some other old favourite?