Back to our Roots

Throughout the world, one class of foodstuffs has for centuries provided a reliable, plentiful, and economical source of sustenance. Often perceived as dour – some, indeed, almost a byword for austerity – we are delighted to take this opportunity to celebrate the history of the edible root.

The roots we eat evolved as storage organs, with what are usually in plants subterranean filaments or tendrils swollen to store energy in the form of carbohydrates. And as with all plants, these roots vary in the concentration and balance of starches, sugars, and other types of carbohydrate that affect edibility, flavour, and texture. Those with a high concentration of starch became valuable as a food source, offering a further important advantage in that under the right conditions many root vegetables will keep for several months. In non-tropical latitudes, where winter was a time of little to no harvesting, this further helped to cement their importance as staple ingredients in national cuisines.

There are three main types of edible roots. Tubers, which include yams and potatoes, are by far the most dominant by weight of consumption and deserve a feature of their own. Consumption of yams is hard to fix with any accuracy as the majority are consumed locally without passing through regulated markets, but of potatoes alone around 400 billion tonnes are known to be grown and eaten each year: by comparison, the annual carrot harvest is around 40 million tonnes. Tuberous roots, the sweet potatoes and manioc – also known as aipim, Brazilian arrowroot, cassava, macaxeira, mandioca, and yucca among other local aliases – of the New World are the second important subgrouping, but one that has not generally extended beyond local cuisines. The third grouping is the taproots, and it is on these that we shall focus.

A taproot is a single dominant root, again evolved as an energy storage system for the plant, from which other roots sprout laterally. It is typically straight, thick, and tapering, and grows directly downward. Picture that description, add a splash of colour, and you have a carrot. The archetype of our subject, in some languages its name is shared with that used simply to mean ‘root’, for example the Dutch worte. The word ‘carrot’ was first recorded in English in 1530, derived ultimately – via Greek, Latin, and Middle French – from the Indo-European ‘ker’ (horn) root. So now you know: impress your friends.

Both historical records and genetic diversity studies suggest that the domestic carrot has a single ancestor, Daucus carota, originating in Persia and originally cultivated for its leaves and seeds rather than the root, as such close relatives of the carrot as parsley, coriander, fennel, anise, dill and cumin still are today. However, a subspecies of this wild carrot must have been bred selectively to improve flavour and soften and reduce the woody core, and from these Central Asian beginnings cultivation of carrots for their roots spread throughout the world. Known to the late Romans as carota and introduced into Spain by the Moors in the 8th century, at this time the European carrot was purple. The orange carrot was first recorded in Afghanistan, from where it spread westward and replaced the purple, red, and yellow varieties, often with branched roots, that distinguish the Eastern carrot.

The English name ‘parsnip’ derives from Middle English pasnepe. In Anglo-Saxon naep denotes ‘root’; the pas- is assumed to derive from the Latin pastus, ‘food’. Thus, while in Dutch ‘carrot’ simply means ‘root’, and in Scotland ‘neeps’ (swede) perform the same purpose, in English ‘parsnip’ means ‘food root’. Actually, the etymology of root vegetables is as rich as parsnip-thickened soup. Consider the swede, known throughout North America as rutabaga, from the Swedish dialect rotabagge, the short stumpy (bagge) root. Originally known as the Swedish turnip to distinguish itfrom the white turnip, ‘turnip’ remains the name for the swede in many parts of the UK and Ireland, where thewhite turnip carries a variety of local names. Turnip itselfis the naep that is rounded, the same use of turn that describes work on a lathe (I do hope you’re keeping up).To bring the topic full circle, in some parts of Scotlandswede is known as ‘baigies’, which derives from the same ‘stumpy’ original as rutabaga.

However, on the fairly safe assumption that you find this less interesting than I do, let’s move on without going into the distinction between Danish kalrabi and Swedish kalrabbi, which is of course kohlrabi and not swede at all. A more universally interesting feature of the main root vegetables is that over the centuries only the carrot has consistently maintained a place on the top table. Parsnips were seen primarily as a source of sugar before the advent of caneand sugar beet, and of starch before potatoes, rather thanas a delicacy in itself. They barely feature in Italian cuisine, for example, instead being cultivated for feeding to pigs.On continental Europe, outside of the regions where theywere necessary staples of subsistence, the swede was considereda food of last resort, to be eaten only when nothing elsewas available. Steckrübeneintopf is a North German stew or soup usually made with swede, carrots, potatoes, and pickled meats. During the food shortages caused by the blockade during the First World War (especially the Turnip Winter of 1916/17) and between 1945 and 1949, the only one of these ingredients available was the swede, and those who had lived through these experiences had deeply unhappy memories of this food. These are extreme examples, but it is reasonable to assert that root vegetables have in the past rarely been associated with glamour, and have indeed had a functional, meat and two veg, boiled beef and carrots association.

The Western carrot we know and love today emerged in the 17th century in the Netherlands, long an agricultural hothouse. The suggestion that its popularity there is due to its orange colour, emblematic of the leadership of the House of Orange in the Dutch struggle for independence, appears to have as little foundation in fact as the concept that carrots ‘help you see in the dark’. Propagated by the RAF during the Second World War to mask from the enemy the highly secret development of radar, this masterly deceit was swallowed whole, at least by the British public, and firmly clung to by subsequent generations to be solemnly repeated in this writer’s early years.

The orange vegetables rapidly spread from their base in the Netherlands: according to the English antiquary John Aubrey “Carrots were first sown at Beckington in Somersetshire. Some very old Man there [in 1668] did remember their first bringing hither”. Introduced to colonial America at around the same time, over the next few centuries the strains developed that are grown today.

The four main types of Western carrot are identified by their root shape. Nantes carrots are cylindrical and short, give high yields in a good range of conditions and are high in sugar, but are brittle and store less well than other types. Chantenay, short and stubby with broad shoulders and a rounded tip, store well and are mainly used for processing. Danvers, bred in Danvers Massachusetts in 1871 to be more tolerant of heavy soil conditions, are longer than Chantaney, taper to a point, again store well, and are used both fresh and for processing. Longer yet and more slender are the Imperator variants, the most widely cultivated by commercial growers for fresh consumption. Each of these types has its own range of variants – eg Scarlet Nantes, Red Cored Chantenay, Danvers Half Long, Imperator 58 – from which growers select according to conditions and commercial objectives.

By the 6th century the Late Roman carota was firmly identifiedas the (Eastern) carrot, but classicists remain divided onwhether the root vegetable called pastinaca eaten by earlier Romans was the carrot or its close relative the parsnip.

Like carrots, parsnips are native to Eurasia and have beeneaten there since ancient times, but the evidence for theircultivation and consumption appears somewhat confused andlimited, probably due to this early inability or unwillingnessto distinguish between the two. Despite this, some authorities are confident enough to assert that the Romans greatly esteemed parsnips – as opposed to carrots – also considering them an aphrodisiac, and Tiberius at least was happy to accept part of the tribute due to Rome from Germanic tribes in parsnip form. Let the academic battle rage on.

Thus, while root vegetables have always been valued for theirdurability and flexibility, capable of being eaten raw or cookedin a variety of ways, they have historically rarely been cherishedfor their flavour. Guided by wise spirits and a more general sense of culinary curiosity and imagination, this perception has in recent decades undergone a spectacular reversal. Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the roots revival has been the beetroot, taproot of the beet, now given star treatment by chefs worldwide. Given the variety of vibrant colour and depth of flavour beetroot offers, the real surprise is that its virtues went so long unexploited. Similarly, the radish, the small and sprightly taproot (whose name derives from the Latin radix ‘root’, but let’s not go there) for centuries almost a necessary evil in Northern Europe, is now celebrated for its lively and distinctive flavour. But most refreshing of all is the respect now given to what were long considered the poor relations of the root tribe: the parsnip, swede and turnip. Consider the vegetables served with venison loin in the recipefrom the Lygon Arms in these pages, and reflect on the virtuesof going back to out roots.