There is a tiny, quiet, stealthy revolution taking place in France’s markets. At first you wouldn’t really notice it – after all, there is nothing remarkable about the thing itself. You see it everywhere in England, you’re used to it being there in winter, it’s normal.
But to the Frenchwoman, it’s bizarre, alien, even dangerous. It threatens kitchen life as she knows it.
It is the appearance of that most subversive of vegetables, the parsnip.
If you were to look turnip up in the Larousse Gastronomique, you will find several recipes. Let’s face it, there would have to be – the turnip, alone and undressed, tastes of stale water.
Look up parsnip, and you will get a few paragraphs, and the conclusion that the English eat it roasted with their rosbif. End of story.
When we first came over, it was impossible to get parsnips anywhere. I found out why when I bought a magazine devoted to Medieval life, and found it there under Foods of the Past. The parsnip was eaten in the Middle Ages when everything was boiled into submission and therefore safe to eat. It made a brief resurgence in the 19th Century, but it didn’t catch on.
The ex-pat English bemoan the loss of many things – bacon, Marmite, marmalade – but if you mention the golden-skinned, pointy vegetable, they will suddenly remember it, and miss it terribly.
So little by little, supermarkets began to stock them – English grown, of course. No Frenchman worth his salt would give turnip land over to parsnip production. The word went round – ‘you can get them in Leclerc’, ‘SuperU have a few’ – and off we went to buy them whilst stocks lasted.
But recently they have begun to appear on the market stalls: never in huge numbers, and frequently grown well past the point where you can actually cut through the things with anything less than a chainsaw. The market is quintessentially French – it’s where the housewife of note and standing goes to make her savvy purchases from her chosen stallholders. She will squeeze the radis noirs, glare at the endives, turn her nose up at the chicory; it’s her right to flex her marketing muscles to her own satisfaction.
And there, amidst all the usual produce, is the parsnip. And next to the parsnip is an Englishwoman (or man), cooing and sighing and dreaming of soup, mash, puree with cream and a sprinkling of paprika, chunks in beefy stews. The Frenchwoman will sidle away, sensing madness.
I was once asked by a French lady, in the middle of a hypermarket, what to do with a parsnip. Several others stopped to hover, whilst pretending not to listen. It’s food, therefore it’s of interest: but it’s foreign food, therefore it is viewed with suspicion.
But it’s there, not just on the stalls of the organic growers, or the sustainable farming types, who could be excused on the grounds of incipient hippiedom; it’s crept onto the ordinary veggie stalls too.
This is, of course, delightful for us. But there will be revenge to be extracted somehow, and I fear that you are going to suffer for our victory. English supermarket shelves will groan under the weight of radis noir, chicory, and endive: but far, far worse – there will be an attempted Turnip Takeover.
Run for your gastronomic lives – run to France: we’ve got the parsnips!
© lms 2012