The most underused and unappreciated of all the winter vegetables is surely swede. The big purple root was once ubiquitous in the UK, a routine staple with the school dinner and the Sunday roast. But that was when the majority ate according to the seasons, before globalised Big Agribusiness decreed that strawberries should be on the shelves in January and leeks in June. All that ‘choice’ means few now bother with swede. When not dismissing it as cattle fodder, most are put off by its reputation as the awful boiled-to-death slop of childhood, not to mention the arduous effort required to peel and dice the rock-hard, yellow-fleshed cannonball.
Swede’s close relative in the Brassica genus is turnip, yet they have quite different tastes, textures and culinary uses. The small, soft, white turnip (Brassica rapa) has a delicate bitterness best enhanced by roasting, braising or pickling, while swede (Brassica napus) has an earthy sweetness ideal for soups, stews and mashes. The last thing one should do with a swede is just boil it; far better to steam it slowly in its own juices with a knob of butter in a lidded pan on a low heat. That way it retains its distinctive flavour and texture and doesn’t become an indeterminate, waterlogged gloop, suitable only for insulating the outhouse.
Swede originated in Russia and Scandinavia at the dawn of agriculture as a natural cross between turnip and wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea). Yes: it really is grown in Sweden, where the cold, wet climate suits swede (and the Swedish) perfectly. From the 18th century it became widely cultivated in the UK and was soon an integral part of ordinary people’s culinary culture. In dirt-poor Wales the cheap, tasty filler was particularly popular, and its use was widespread enough to merit a new word in the Welsh dictionary rather than a lazy adoption of whatever word the English had coined. The English term ‘swede’, which had been quickly abbreviated from ‘Swedish turnip’ to distinguish it from the actual turnip, was thankfully not imitated – or else the beleaguered beast would be lumbered with ‘swedeg’ in the Welsh lexicon. Instead, Welsh followed older, Pan-European instincts and it was named ‘rwden’, derived first-hand from its Old Swedish name ‘rotabagge’ (baggy root). For some reason I can’t fathom, the plural is ‘rwdins’ – the only plural in Welsh formed by adding an ‘s’. Meanwhile, turnip was differentiated as ‘meipen’ (plural: ‘maip’), in itself an unusual ‘n’ > ‘m’ mutation from the Latin original.
Like Wales, the US and Canada also went for linguistic authenticity: swede is universally known as ‘rutabaga’ in North America. It is thus one of a number of vegetables, such as eggplant (aubergine), zucchini (courgette), arugula (rocket) and fava bean (broad bean), that curiously endure as rare instances of what little is left of Anglo-American diversity after 70 years of the ‘Special Relationship’ (translation: drooling poodle and cruel kennel owner).
The vegetable’s confusing nomenclature extends to Scotland where it is called ‘neep’, one half of the signature Scottish dish Neeps & Tatties, and parts of ungentrified northern and central England where it was the ‘swede’ bit that was dropped and it stubbornly remains ‘turnip’. This is a far more accurate, not to say respectful, word than ‘swede’, coming as it does from the plant’s Latin species name ‘napus’. Here then is another, even older, remnant linguistic fault-line exposed by this humble rootball: between the more embracing Pict, Norse, and Jute traditions of the northern British Isles and the narrower Anglo-Saxon ways of the south.
Although Neeps & Tatties is the best known dish which puts swede at centre stage, it is by no means the only one. Evidence that the Scots are so much better than the Welsh at exporting cultural clout is provided by the fact that the Welsh version, Ponch Maip, is virtually unknown despite being equally venerable. ‘Ponch’ is a peculiar word: it doesn’t otherwise exist and has no discernible meaning. Perhaps it’s a borrowing…perhaps it’s onomatopoeic…perhaps I put the correct amount of ‘o’s in that last word…perhaps it’s time for a recipe:
1 swede, peeled, chopped into cubes (watch your fingers!)
500g (1lb) potatoes, peeled, chopped into cubes
50g (2oz) butter
100g (4oz) bacon, chopped, fried crisp
handful of fresh herbs, chopped (eg: sage, thyme, marjoram)
salt and pepper
1 Put the swede, potatoes and butter in a large saucepan with the lid on
2 Cook slowly over a low heat until soft (about 40 mins)
3 Season, add the herbs and bacon pieces
4 Mash roughly
Swede grows easily and well in Wales, so long as the soil is free-draining, fertile and non-acidic and the roots have room to expand. But because Wales has yet to gain control over land use or begin to develop a self-sufficient, balanced, sustainable agriculture based on the needs of the many, no Welsh swede-growing sector exists and it has to be brought in by road from England and Scotland. To buck the trend I’m making room in my small plot to sow swede seed this spring: they can be harvested by next winter while the delicious sprouting green tops can be picked within months. Now, how best to conclude this item? I know – a giant full stop…