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Smashing turnip: Reclaiming Scotland’s Hallowe’en

By on October 29, 2012

GINNY CLARK on the noble turnip … exploring the roots of a Scottish Hallowe’en. Pic by Russell F Stewart.

Pumpkins are great – and they are much, much easier to hollow out than our traditional homegrown turnip. Yet I think the effort is worth making for our Hallowe’en lantern. After all, it’s only because the USA adopted the festival imported by Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 19th century, the pumpkin – previously carved as part of American harvest celebrations – was adopted for use in Trick or Treat-ing.

Now the pumpkin has become the poster boy for Hallowe’en, his carefully-chiselled grin peering out everywhere from paper cups to style magazines, his narrowed eyes mocking the demise of our own ‘tumshie’ lanterns. The pumpkin is here to stay. However, I think it’s time we reinstated the turnip, affording it the same Hallowe’en status, at least, as the squash upstart.

As a child, the annual task of creating the perfect turnip features was a crucial element of Hallowe’en festivities. It can be tricky – but my father taught me well.  Use a knife only to carefully cut off the top, then criss-cross cuts, not too deeply, across the surface. The real work is done by a sturdy dessert spoon, a dig and twist motion making short work of the insides, followed by scraping once you get to a reasonable depth. Once that’s done – very carefully – use a small sharp knife to cut out eyes and a toothy smile. Use the spoon once again to scrape out a small tea-light sized hollow for the candle. Finally, cut a pizza-slice shaped section from the back of the top before replacing it as a lid. Of course, be mindful of safety and stay vigilant once the lantern is lit.

The turnip pieces and scrapings won’t go to waste – see the Turnip Purry recipe from F Marian McNeill’s ‘The Scots Kitchen’ below. First, a little clarity concerning the name of this amazing root vegetable … It’s a turnip. It’s not a swede (unless you are reading this in the south of England). Some people do insist on debating this, as if there is a great mystery – or that some of us in Scotland have become muddled by history or understanding.

This isn’t about varieties or mistaken identification, it’s more about culture and language. In Scotland – and in many parts of northern England – we call the purple-brown skinned and golden-fleshed vegetable (brassica napobrassica) a turnip, sometimes here also known as neeps or a tumshie. In the south of England, it’s called a swede. It’s really the same thing. And until about 10-15 years ago you could walk into a branch of a UK-wide supermarket either side of the border and find the product properly labelled according to the shop’s geographic location.

Which is fine – because one name is not more correct than the other in a general sense, it’s all down to where you are. Think loch or lake … However a strange, UK standardisation crept in, with labels gradually morphing our turnips into swedes. The old Somerfield (previously Presto and Safeway and now Waitrose) in Byres Road was one of the last to resist. The much smaller, paler veg called a turnip down south is known here as a new turnip … but let’s not get started on why. I’d love to see the ‘swede’ tag correctly re-labelled in our shops and markets. It’s just a name – but the wrong one.

And so to the recipe. McNeill includes a recipe for Turnip Purry in her famous book, first published by Blackie in 1929. The recipe was in turn taken from ‘The Cook and Housewife’s Manual’ by Mistress Margaret ‘Meg’ Dods. Dods is a character in Sir Walter Scott’s novel St Ronan’s Well – featuring the fictional dining Cleikum Club – and many thought this witty tome had also been written by Scott, although it was created by Christina Johnston, a talented writer and the wife of an Edinburgh publisher, in 1826.  This will make you giggle …

Turnip Purry (stewed turnip – Meg Dod’s recipe). Turnips, fresh butter, white pepper, salt, ginger. Pare off all that would be hard, woody and stringy when boiled. Boil them in plenty of water for from three-quarters of an hour to nearly two hours, according to the age and size. Drain them and mash them with a wooden spoon through a colander. Return them into a stew-pan to warm, with a piece of fresh butter, white pepper and salt. When mixed well with the butter place them neatly in the dish and mark in diamonds or sippets.

“The Cleikum Club put a little powdered ginger to their mashed turnips, which were studiously chosen of the yellow, sweet, juicy sort, for which Scotland is celebrated – that kind which, in the days of semi-barbarism, were served raw, as a delicate whet before dinner, as turnips are in Russia at the present day. Mashed turnips to be eaten with boiled fowl or veal, or the more insipid meats, are considerably improved by the Cleikum seasoning of ginger, which, besides, corrects the flatulent properties of this esculent.” – MD.

Even Meg Dods takes the time to describe the “yellow, sweet, juicy sort” of turnip in Scotland. What a turn-up …

* There’s a new edition of F Marian McNeill’s ‘The Scots Kitchen’ out now, published by Birlinn (2010).

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