It’s the only thing Baldrick and I have in common. Honest. This obsession with the turnip.
I had a wee peek back through the Garden Gate, and was amazed that I had not offered you something on neeps. This will now be put right.
For the purposes of clarity, let me first define neep nomenclature. In Clark-speak, early neeps are turnips. Maincrop neeps are swedes. I will say this only once.
Botanically, Brassica campestris rapa, and a close relative of the cabbage. (The turnip, not me.) They have been grown in this country since the sixteenth century, so we should have got it right by now. They will grow in almost any type of soil, and although a free-draining sandy loam is best, this soil type also allows turnip flea beetles, or gall weevils, to flourish. These burrow in to the roots, and if not spotted, have the effect of putting you off your dinner. I’m sorry that I can’t offer an organic prevention, and if anyone can help, please do so on the Forum. The best I can advise is to dust the seeds with a branded seed dressing before sowing.
Ignore the winter varieties, and grow swedes instead. Concentrate on the summer varieties. A site manured for the previous season’s crop is best (practise crop rotation to ensure plant health, even in the smallest garden). Like their cabbage relatives, they like a soil with a high pH (limey). So if your soil is acidic, apply a dressing of lime early in the winter – but not in the spring, near sowing time. Sow small quantities at regular intervals, starting as soon as the soil warms up, or under cloches for earlier crops, and continue until early June. Pull and use while small, young and tender. If left too long, they become stringy. Water them in dry spells, as drought checks their growth, and they become stringy prematurely.
Popular varieties are Purple Top Milan and Snowball, with Arcoat being worth a try in pots or growbags.
Same ground conditions as turnips, though slightly more tolerant. Delay sowing until late May or June, and add a general fertiliser such as Growmore to the soil. These will be in the ground a long time, and will need a continuous supply of food. Thin them to about twelve inches apart.
You can start using swedes from about October onwards, but the real flavour only appears after they have had a good frost. They are totally winter hardy, and can stay in the ground right through until spring. I really shouldn’t say this, but unlike most vegetables, swedes seem to thrive on neglect. Farmers grow fields full of them, with much less attention than we gardeners give them. And I hate to say it, but a swede from a field always seems to taste better than one from the garden. (Not that I pinch neeps from fields, you understand.)
My recommendation for a good swede is the variety Brora. Ruby is also worth a try, being resistant to Powdery Mildew, which sometimes afflicts swedes.
Now the culinary bit. You’ve peeled your tatties. You’ve captured and plucked your haggis. What’s missing? Chappit neeps, that’s what.
Prepare your swede like you would potatoes for boiling, and be sure to remove the skin thickly, because there’s a stringy layer beneath the skin. Add a beef stock cube and boil them utterly senseless. Mash to a sloppy pulp with olive oil, butter, cream and freshly ground pepper.
Jamie Oliver, eat your heart out – Clarkie does recipes now!
The most common problem with the swede is a bitter taste, which is the result of not enough frost. There are two tips to overcome this. Either shove your neep in the freezer for a couple of days, before you use it. Or, if time is not on your side, add a couple of teaspoons of soft brown sugar along with the stock cube.
So that’s it. An ambition realised. An article on neeps.
Everything else will be an anti-climax.
© Mike Clark 2003