‘Let them eat turnips’

Posted on February 28, 2023

So tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and salad crops are all in short supply right now in Britain’s supermarkets. Indeed Tesco, Aldi, Lidl and Morrisons are all rationing customers to a single item or bag of these valuable vegetables. Why? Allegedly because of adverse weather conditions in Spain and Morocco. Some unpatriotic people on seeing supermakets across Europe, including Ukraine, well stocked with all these delicacies as normal, suspect another reason, the impact of Brexit-induced red tape. Others suspect the cost of energy to heat UK greenhouses. But there is a Government-approved solution to the shortages. Turnips. Environment Secretary Therese Coffey used last week’s National Farmers Union conference in Birmingham to extol their virtues, allegedly under the guise of ‘eating local and seasonal’. It hasn’t gone down well  in the popular press.

Turnips have an odd  cultural resonance. Ever since ‘Turnip’ Townshend aka Second Viscount Townshend (1674-1738), he of Raynham Hall in Norfolk,  begain his agricultural experiments in the early 18 Century, the turnip seems to have acquired a special place in our national story.  His invention of the four crop rotation method: turnips, barley, clover, and wheat, led to a significant  improvement in agrcultural production three hundred years ago. But even he considered the turnip crop suitable only as animal feed.  Baldrick  in Blackadder was a big turnip fan, especially if they looked like a ‘thingy’ (they don’t) and had much amusement  serving up especially carved ones that reminded people of ‘their wedding night’. Which proves that they were popular as long ago as medieval times.

In fact they were popular in medieval times when they were referred to as ‘neeps’ as in haggis, tatties and neeps – the only context in which that term is still in use, and Gerard in his Herbal (1597)  refers to ‘small turneeps’ which he considered particularly sweet and tasty, that were grown in the village of Hackney and brought to London for sale in the market at Cheapside. The interesting question is why they fell out of fashion so quickly. Seemingly by the late 17 Century the arrival of new root vegetables such as potatoes and sweet potatoes from the New World displaced them, as well as the rapid increase in sugar production also mainly from the New World, a simpler substitute for the sought after sweetness.

More recently – than the Blackadder series that is, they were a source of abuse, when the England football team lost an international to Sweden in 1999. The Sun’s headine on this humiliating event: ‘Swedes 2 Turnips 1’. But to prove that you can’t keep sex (thank you Baldrick) out of politics, when our ‘blink and you missed her’ Prime Minister Liz Truss  was seeking selection in 2010 for a Tory seat in – where else, Norfolk, and was rumbled to be having an affair, or at least sharing their mutual interest in turnips, with a married Tory MP, her local Association tried to get rid of her – a married woman, sex in the 21 Century, whatever next! The press rode to her rescue, labellng them, what else, but the ‘Turnip Taliban’.  She may have lasted long enough as PM to crash the economy (£40bn and counting)  but her legacy also seems to be to have promoted the hitherto unknown Therese Coffey to Ministerial office (Deputy PM no less) and her skirmish with the ever topical turnip. The Daily Star, having managed to get a lettuce to outlast PM Truss’s tenure, has now started a similar challenge – to see if Coffey can outlast a turnip. As fellow East Anglian grandee ‘Turnip Townsend’ could have told her 300 years ago, that is a risky bet for Coffey. It is no accident they are fed to over wintering livestock – because they last so long!

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