Where I was born and bred, on the border between Scotland and England, as kids, we regularly ate turnip (neep in dialect) with haggis, Scotland’s national dish. In so doing, we managed to disgust the English and the French at the same time: the first because they’re horrified by haggis, a sheep’s intestine stuffed with offal and oatmeal, the second because they say the rough turnip of the north is only good to feed sheep and goats and that, gastronomically speaking, it can’t be compared with their tender little navets. To any ear, at any latitude, a dish called potage aux navets blancs sounds much better than haggis ‘n neeps.
In my family, we used to eat turnips at least once a week, simply boiled, or maybe jazzed up with a knob of butter. Joanna Blythman, the award-winning Scottish food journalist, tells me turnips are enjoying a revival in my homeland. British gourmet chefs have apparently discovered that turnips taste good baked in the oven, flavored with garlic and anointed with extra virgin olive oil. These are hardly traditional British tastes, but fashion is fashion.
Not that the re-evaluation of the turnip seems to have caught on elsewhere. It’s certainly hard to find the vegetable on the menus of restaurants here in Italy. True, we associate the turnip with the peasant tradition, but, in the collective consciousness, it’s redolent of a dark past, one in which our ancestors were haunted by the spectre of hunger. The fact is that, as a staple for the poor, the turnip was supplanted by the potato long ago.
I recently made the the acquaintance of a truly great turnip, now protected by a Slow Food Presidium: the Caprauna turnip, which takes its name from a mountain village at an altitude of about 900 meters in the Valle Tanaro, on the border between Piedmont and Liguria. In the province of Cuneo, but bordering those of Imperia e Savona. Driving to the seaside in the summer along state highway SS28, I always see the sign ‘CAPRAUNA’ at a crossroads between the villages of Ormea and Ponte di Nava. For years I’d been curious to visit the place and find out the origins of its curious name (literally ‘One Goat’ in Italian). Everyone’s heard of one-horse towns, but a one- goat town?
One version has it that, in the Middle Ages, the only survivor of an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the village was a goat. Another holds that the name derives from ‘Clavis una’, one key, referring to the fact that there used to be only one entrance to the village. The history of Caprauna, contended by Ligurian and Piedmontese warlords from the eleventh century onwards, reflects its geographical position as a border outpost.
Today, though it boasts two restaurants, Caprauna has a population of no more than 130 people, almost all senior citizens. But judging from the many architectural remains visible round about (bridges, old cottages, wash-houses), it must have been more populous at one time. What is most striking is a series of old terraces supported by dry stone walls — another link with my region of origin, where, thanks to the Romans, the landscape is dotted with similar memories of the past, Hadrian’s Wall first and foremost.
In the old days, the local peasants used to grow first cereals, such as corn, barley, rye and oats, then turnips, which they sowed in the late summer and harvested throughout the winter. The proximity of the sea and the high altitude ensured — and ensure — plants with optimal growth and a sweet, delicate flavour, an unusual yellowish white in colour. A passage in the Annals of the Republic of Genoa (1500) in which the Genoese historian Giustiniani recalls that Caprauna was, ‘Celebrated for the goodness of the turnips that grow there, beautifully and abundantly’.
Getting out of the car in Carpaun’s one and only piazza, streaming banks of thick fog (or maybe we’re shrouded by a cloud?) reduced visibility to a dozen metres or so. You could feel Liguria — the sea, that is — in the air, balsamic with a hint of scirocco, and in the village dialect, in no way Piedmontese. I imagine it was here, in these parts — which lived through a long Middle Age without every experiencing a Renaissance — that Umberto Eco set The Name of the Rose (‘…along the Apennine ridge, between Piedmont, Liguria and France …’).
My lunch started with an antipasto of turnips and boiled calf’s tongue, followed by a first course of sciancui, roughly cut pasta, with a sauce of turnips, potatoes, leeks, mushrooms and cream. The main course was rabbit with dried figs and a reduction of red passito wine, accompanied by fried turnips (so good that, served in paper cones, they could easily replace French fries at fast food outlets).
The turnip, cooked or raw, also features in many other traditional recipes. A classic combination is with sausage and the root is also served with bagna cauda, or baked in the oven with butter and cheese. It’s nice to think that, thanks to the work of the Slow Food Presidium, the poor old turnip may contribute to the rebirth of this lovely but somewhat forgotten corner of Piedmont. Which is not to be discounted, given the contagious enthusiasm that surrounds the project.