KITCHENS across the world will be sharpening their most robust knives this week in preparation for that quintessential side dish which accompanies the Burns Supper – mashed neep.
The work of Robert Burns has enjoyed international appeal for well over two centuries, and the celebration of his life, created by his friends not long after his death, has become a template which people around the globe use to bring a taste of Scotland to their cultural calendar.
Top chefs and prized haggis from Scotland are flown to the most exclusive of venues, and so the palates of the poet’s enthusiasts are introduced to a root vegetable many of us scarcely look twice at the rest of the year.
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The humble neep was a key ingredient in the agricultural revolution, feeding the Industrial Revolution which created the modern world, and yet most of us have no idea of the origins of this vegetable, or even what it is called.
Here I have a rare confession. For anyone whom I have snorted derisively at for referring to neeps as “Swedes”, I raise my hands in atonement. Because it turns out that while all Swedes are turnips, not all turnips are Swedes.
If you were to phone a farmer and ask for a turnip, you’d get the wee, white-fleshed vegetable folk often call summer neeps.
If you wanted the same farmer to provide you with a neep for mashing into large yellow piles of buttery loveliness to accompany your haggis and tatties, you’d need to be asking for purple Swede.
Scotland is well-suited to these versatile root vegetables and their introduction transformed farming. Before the Swede was grown as a fodder crop, food for livestock was limited – winter-weakened cattle had to be carried from their byres to spring pastures.
The Swedish turnip was developed in the late 1700s, a cross between the white turnip and the cabbage. Despite being labour-intensive to grow, the frost-hardy Swede – packed full of vitamins – provided crucial winter nourishment for people and livestock.
While the unassuming turnip (that’s the small purple-skinned, white-fleshed summer neep) has sustained us for at least 4000 years – Pliny the Elder praised it as “a great defense against famine”.
It’s not certain when the purple Swede first arrived in Scotland.
We do know that in 1777 a Mr Airth sent his father, a Forfarshire farmer, a packet of the new kale root seeds from Gothenburg and that King Gustav of Sweden sent a gift of seeds to Patrick Miller, a gentleman farmer of Dalswinton, in Dumfries and Galloway in the early 1790s.
By then, Robert Burns was a neighbor of Patrick Miller, leasing Ellisland Farm from his estate. It is not hard to see how the exotic neep became part of the Burns Supper.
Fast forward 250 years and another seed merchant is helping keep the turnip in focus. Murray Duguid Ltd sponsors the Royal Northern Agricultural Society’s annual Growing Turnip & Fodder Beet competition, which attracts entries from Laurencekirk to Nairn.
This year’s winner was Stewart Davidson, with a field of Kenmore Swede giving a yield of 72.67 tonnes per acre, destined for the sheep and cattle of West Cortiecram Farm.
“There’s not a feed you can grow to rival the neep,” says Sandy Duguid, owner of Murray Duguid Ltd.
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“This competition gives us a lot of information which we can use. The drier springs and wetter autumns are making a big difference to growing.
“The Kenmore isn’t palatable to anyone but a sheep or a cow. The Magres are better for people. At one time you got other varieties too, but they fell by the wayside as tastes changed.”
Angus Jacobsen has been farming at Inverbervie for more than 50 years. He grows Magres for the table. While demand for Swedes is steady, he thinks changing lifestyles means the neep has fallen out of favor with some shoppers.
“When people go into a supermarket, a kilo of nope is a lot to carry home. It can be a daunting prospect. It’s maybe an old-fashioned vegetable that folk in rural communities know what to do with, but I’m not sure everyone understands how versatile and delicious they are; they are very nutritious, and low in calories too,” he says.
Angus likes his neeps boiled and mashed with butter. Having lived in the Northern Isles, I always serve my haggis with a side of clapshot, that truly delicious Orcadian mash of salted tatties, neep, white pepper, a dash of milk, and a large daud of butter.
As you tuck into your Burns Supper, stay your fork over the golden mash on your dish, and give a moment to ponder the miracle that is the modern neep.
Ruth Watson is the founder of the Keep Scotland the Brand campaign