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About A Week: The Time Of The Turnip

Sales of the humble turnip are soaring in these tough economic times, Peter Hinchliffe reports.

A vegetable associated with hard times is making a comeback in cash-strapped British homes.

Sales of the humble turnip are soaring.

The UK’s biggest supermarket chain reports selling 75% more of the hefty root vegetable which is also the favourite lunch munch of cattle and sheep.

As the credit crunch bites harder, housewives used to buying convenience prepared meals are preparing the dinners their mothers used to cook from raw ingredients. And the bulky turnip is a great appetite satisfier.

Cooked turnips have been appearing on British plates since the Middle Ages. During the stark food-shortage years of World War Two the vegetable was an essential part of a strictly rationed diet.

The Confederation of British Industry reported that British shoppers, anxiously trying to balance family budgets, are spending less on luxury goods and “trading down’’ to budget stores.

Andy Clarke, chairman of the CBI’s distributive trades panel, was quoted as saying, “It feels like we are in hurricane season. Shoppers are increasingly focusing on price as the economy continues to slow and household budgets get tighter. There has been a marked migration to the value end of the market and many have cut back on luxuries, although the drop in petrol prices should give a bit more breathing space."

As a further confirmation of tough economic times London-based bank HSBC, the second-biggest bank in the world, has announced that 1,100 jobs will be axed worldwide. Half of these job losses will be in Britain.

HSBC employs about 335,000 people around the world. Last month the bank announced a 28% decline in half year profits. It wrote off $14 billion from bad debts in its US business.

The BBC reported an HSBC spokesman as saying the firm had opted to reduce its workforce "because of market conditions and the economic environment, and our cautious outlook for 2009".

HSBC further announced that it is raising some mortgage rates. Other banks and buildings societies are expected to increase the cost of their loans to home buyers.

Shell-shocked workers in banks and other financial business are now contemplating career switches into the “safe’’ world of teaching. The Training and Development Agency for Schools says there has been a 34% rise in the number of people contemplating a teaching career in recent months.

There have been significant changes in the British diet over the past three decades. Surveys reveal that the nation’s favourite meal is no longer the roast beef of old England but a chicken curry. Chinese, Italian and Mexican dishes also feature as take-away favourites.

Boiled cabbage, cauliflower and carrots now have previously unheard-of rivals, such as squash, courgettes, lemon grass, galangal, pak choi and star anise.

Numerous TV cookery programmes have encouraged home chefs to try their hands at producing such exotic delights as stuffed poblanos with borlotti beans and goat’s cheese or salmon with foaming champagne and chive sauce.

And now it’s back to turnips. Mind you, imaginative chefs can turn the humble turnip into a delight for the taste buds. How about turnip and potato soup creamed with lemon balm? Or sautee turnips with poppy and paprika?

And apple and turnip soup served with nutmeg cheddar breadsticks is worthy of being set before Her Majesty the Queen in her castle at Windsor. “This comforting Autumn soup,’’ says the recipe, “satisfies the seasonal yearning for earthy comforts with a hint of the sweet playfulness of the harvest. The dried apples give the soup an interesting textural quality, and intensify the flavour, adding sweet notes to the bright earthiness of the humble turnip.’’

Open Writing columnist Eric Shackle, in a feature written some years ago, said “Mangold wurzels, those football-size turnips English farmers grow for sheep and cattle feed, were once used to cure coughs.”

"One use of wurzels not widely known was as an excellent cough cure," says Joan F. Basden, whose father, Richard Blacklocks, grew them on an 11-acre farm in Romney Marsh, Kent, in the 1920s and 30s. Slices about half an inch thick were interlaced with brown sugar and allowed to stand. A thick syrup, ideal for children with whooping cough, was produced."

Scots eat a lot of turnips, a word they shorten to neeps. "Haggis is traditionally served as 'haggis, neeps and tatties,'" says Judy Creighton, in The Canadian Press. "The neeps are mashed turnip or swede, with a little milk and allspice added, and the tatties are creamed potatoes flavoured with nutmeg."

In my boyhood during the stark days of World War Two rationing I often ate raw turnip. While helping on a local farm to chop up turnips to feed to livestock I would chew chunks of the vegetable as a snack.

And one of my delights after coming in from a long walk on a brisk winter’s day is to sit down to a warming meal of sausages, mashed potatoes and turnip. In my part of Yorkshire turnips are known as naddies, and sausage, naddies and mash make for a satisfying meal.

Perhaps some years on from now, when British historians look back on the credit crunch and its effect on our lives, these days we now live in will be referred to as The Time Of The Turnip.

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