Thanks to the great Roman naturalist and writer Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), we know that parsnips were brought to Rome each year from imperial provinces across the Rhine, and that they were destined for the Emperor’s table.
The scientific name for the parsnip is Pastinaca sativa, which incorporates the Latin pastinare, which means “to dig up.” Nip, or neep, are old English words for “roots,” and parsnips are extraordinarily commonplace in Britain.
However, as far as I can gather, this native of northern Asia and Europe is unknown to the Japanese, which seems so strange considering that pretty well all the other vegetables I knew as a child in Wales are common here. Most of my Japanese friends can’t even say the word at first, and only a few can remember it.
The parsnip’s root is shaped rather like a carrot, but the flesh is white, while the plant’s leaves are similar to those of turnips. Parsnip leaves make excellent cattle fodder, and the roots make a powerful wine. As a vegetable they are rich in vitamins A, B and C, as well as various minerals. They take about 14 weeks to grow, and have deep tap roots.
When eaten, parsnips taste very sweet, especially if they have seen a little frost. Actually, gardeners in Britain often leave parsnips in the ground over winter, pulling them when they need them. Up here where I live in the Nagano hills, however, the snow gets far too deep for us to do that, and besides, we found that the little red mice that lace the ground with burrows just under the snow really love parsnips and devour whole ones over winter.
Most people cut parsnips lengthways, like chips, and roast them with their beef, turkey or whatever. They are also mashed, or put into stews. The taste is a bit like sweet potato, burdock, carrot and ginseng mixed. Some hate it. Others, like me, love it.
The problem is that as far as I know, you can’t get parsnip seeds here in Japan. So, on a trip to Britain, I acquired various vegetable seeds, including parsnips, that were absolutely free from any disease or fungus.
The first batch, grown in 2005, was a great success, although Mr. Matsuki — our woodland trust forester, and a dear friend — started pulling them up in summer, when they were only pencil thick. Then, waving a bunch of them around, he’d loudly declaim to all and sundry their uselessness. But having persuaded him to leave them in the ground until December, he was later to be astonished at their size and the weight they put on. Now, he even likes to eat them, although nearly all the locals around here in Kurohime will not try something new.
Not to be put off, though, I brought in a whole lot of different parsnip strains to try growing this year. We had a huge crop!
Many people in this area tend to be a bit like the bears, strangely set in their ways. For example, the bears will walk through a blueberry field, the bushes heavy with sweet berries, and not even taste a single one. Then they’ll go into a field of sweet corn and gorge themselves. That’s despite the fact that sweet corn (or maize) is an import, originally from Central America, along with potatoes and tomatoes. Canadian and Alaskan bears gorge on blueberries — for them the berries are a staple.
I got the notion that because folk like sweet corn, they might like parsnips, which are almost as sweet as sweet potatoes. I fancied myself as the parsnip pioneer of northern Nagano, envisaging a great bronze statue of Old Nic holding up a parsnip and gesturing benevolently to an audience of adoring parsnip-lovers.
I once saw some diminutive parsnips on sale in a supermarket in Tokyo — for the princely sum of 400 yen each! They must have flown in First Class!
Shocked by this, and delighted with our bumper crop, I thought I would test the parsnip popularity among expatriates in Tokyo, so I sent a few to the British Ambassador. When he graciously answered with a letter and a Christmas card, I sent a whole box of them ready for Christmas dinner, hoping there might be some parsnip-lovers among the staff, too. An Honorary MBE has certain obligations, after all, and honestly, I’m not after a knighthood to go with the gong — just trying to be friendly.
My old granny used to make some powerful wine from parsnips; quite tasty, but lethal. I have the recipe, but apparently that would be unlawful here in Japan. Maybe I can persuade a shochu distiller to try parsnips instead of sweet potatoes?
Sadly, though, despite our success with parsnips, the Brussels sprouts were a failure. They ended up looking like stalks of kale with a few feathery leaves down the stems. Heartbroken I was. No luck with turnips either, they just sprouted huge green leaves with nary a nip to show. Got to have turnips to go with my haggis! Without the neeps I might as well just drink the whisky, enjoy the poetry and sing along with the bagpipes.
But what we did get was some lovely purple carrots. No fibbing: purple carrots. We’ll try for a larger batch next year. Livens up a salad no end!
Of course we grow other vegetables: potatoes, yams, egg plants, cucumbers, cabbage, leeks, beets, onions, bitter Okinawan goya, pumpkins, spinach and so on — but I always like to try something different.
Different indeed was one of our humble parsnips, which reminded me of the poem “Song” by the English metaphysical poet John Donne (1573-1631), the first verse of which is:
Go and catch a falling star, Get with child a mandrake root, Tell me where all past years are, Or who cleft the devil’s foot, Teach me to hear mermaids singing, Or to keep off envy’s stinging, And find What wind Serves to advance an honest mind.
On seeing this strange thing (pictured above), I wondered for a moment if I could get it to cross with a mandrake root — but then no, I thought, because my Korean friends would be horrified. The ruder bits get cut off and it goes into a stew tonight. Amen.