When you imagine what a poet might choose as muse or subject, a swede doesn’t easily spring to mind does it? Yet when I sat down to eulogise the swede as one of my chosen foods, I was most surprised and pleased to find that plenty of far more illustrious writers and poets had got there well before me. And they hadn’t all written verse after verse about clotted mud, strafing winds, chapped legs and tight, tense backs although having worked school winter holidays as a potato picker in farms perched upon the high ridges of the South Suffolk Stour valley, I can attest to how tough these jobs are.
In We Field Women by Thomas Hardy, set on Flintcomb-Ash, the farm in Hardy’s novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, we are not shielded from the back-breaking effort that hard manual labour involves though and it is still important that the travails of those who bring us our food are recognised. The poem is narrated by one of the field women who spend each autumn trimming swedes in the rain; cutting off the knobs on the swedes to make them easier to slice up for cattle food. The fact that the job ceased when the swedes became too cold to cut up says much about the bone numbing, frigid conditions they endured, causing hands to become red-raw and cracked from the swede juice as it leaked around the handle of their clasp knives:
“How it rained
When we worked at Flintcomb-Ash,
And could not stand upon the hill
Trimming swedes for the slicing-mill.
swedes – root vegetables The wet washed through us – plash, plash, plash:
How it rained! How it snowed
When we crossed from Flintcomb-Ash
To the Great Barn for drawing reed,
pulling out long straw for thatching roofs Since we could nowise chop a swede. –
nowise – not at all (because the swedes were frozen) Flakes in each doorway and casement-sash:
How it snowed!”
Our dispositions might not be sweetened after a day in a freezing cold field but the frost and snow certainly has a sweetening effect upon many root vegetables and turns the flesh of the swede a darker hue. Cold weather triggers the breakdown of the starch contained in its swollen globular shaped root and they release glucose. Sugar freezes at a lower temperature than water and becomes a super useful vegetal anti-freeze thus preventing the damage that frozen water causes in more tender plants. Come the deepest winter, any swedes left in fields are said to be the food of choice for discerning hares and rabbits- a gnaw-able energy ball if you like- and finding them becomes easy when the freeze-thaw cycle pushes the green, bronze and purple shoulders of the roots upwards until they become a lumpy patchwork on the field surface, crowned with their floppy green leaves.
Charmingly, for poet Edward Thomas, the sight of a well stored earth clamp of swedes arranged in layers and enclosed in straw and soil is akin to the opening of a Pharoah’s tomb, the roots kept sweet and dry from the ‘moans and drips of Winter’. For hungry people cooking their way through the hunger gap, they are as precious as the jewels and treasures of an Egyptian King and were seemingly stored with similar care:
“They have taken the gable from the roof of clay
On the long swede pile. They have let in the sun
To the white and gold and purple of curled fronds
Unsunned. It is a sight more tender-gorgeous
At the wood-corner where Winter moans and drips
Than when, in the Valley of the Tombs of Kings,
A boy crawls down into a Pharaoh’s tomb
And, first of Christian men, beholds the mummy,
God and monkey, chariot and throne and vase,
Blue pottery, alabaster, and gold.”
Mashed with carrots, roasted and enriched with maple syrup and Jamaican long-pepper, swede comes a long way from its humble roots (sorry!) and simple, country stock. Turned deep-marigold from the heat of the oven with a chewy, smoky-sweet crust from the maple syrup and smoothly fleshed underneath, it is perfect with roasts, accompanying stews and braises and as a bed for a pile of barbecued pork ribs or chicken thighs. The addition of long-pepper adds a complex taste more reminiscent of spice mixes such as garam masala with notes of cinnamon, musk and cardamom. Its effects are cool in the mouth, as opposed to warm, and although the Kama Sutra praises its aphrodisiac qualities stating that long-pepper should be mixed with black pepper, other spices, and honey, with the promise to I don’t recommend you apply it externally as the Kama Sutra does- on a cold night, a warm meal cooked for your loved one after a hard day at work is aphrodisiac enough, I find.
I first had swede served with maple syrup at The House on the Green in North Wootton, Norfolk, a little pub with attached restaurant which happens to cook astonishingly great Sunday roasts. Served alongside giant Yorkshire puds and rosy beef, the dishes of cauliflower cheese, maple syrup carrots and swede, peppered cabbage and spring onion mash were sides which shone as brightly as the sunniest frost-sharpened winter day. Here’s my version but do go try theirs.
MAPLE MASHED CARROTS AND SWEDE
Ingredients: 400g carrots / 2 small swedes/ 2 tbsp maple syrup (I prefer Grade B for extra smoke and complexity)/ salt / Jamaican long pepper
Preheat your oven to 200 degrees and put a large pan of salted water on to boil. Peel and cut the swede into small chunks. Then peel and chop the carrots up into slivers. Place both vegetables into the boiling water and cook until fork tender. Drain well over the sink using a colander and then place back into the saucepan for mashing. Put the pan with the drained swede over a low heat to further dry them out (this will make them fluffier) and roughly mash them. Take off the heat and dribble over the maple syrup and stir it in ensuring it is evenly distributed. Then mash some more until you have a chunky mash: try not to make it too smooth because you want the chunks to catch in the oven’s heat and caramelise a little in the oven. Put the mash into a baking dish, taste and check for seasoning- you might want to salt it more- then rough the mash up with a fork and put into the oven for around 40 mins or until deeply golden and slightly crunchy on top. Take it out halfway through and stir, to ensure maximum caramelisation. Do keep an eye on the mash because you don’t want it to burn.
When it is done, remove from the oven and taste. Grate enough Jamaican long pepper over it to your taste and serve with a large pat of butter on each portion.