Though Samuel Pepys remains the diarist closest to my heart (with a dishonourable mention for the entertaining Alan Clark) it is Pepys’ Restoration contemporary, John Evelyn, to whom I consistently turn in penning my vignettes about food. Not so much to his Diaries proper but to his horticultural treatises. In my Quest for Cobnuts I invoked his Sylva (1664); while for Scorzonera it’s his Acteria: A Discourse of Sallets from five years later.
Many of those ‘sallets’ he grows in his stately country garden are salad stalwarts to this day – beetroots, spring onions, lettuces, radishes. His spellings may differ but artichaux and sparagus are no strangers to us either. Elsewhere there’s a strong interface between wild and cultivated, medicinal and culinary, and many plants mentioned (Jack o’ the Hedge, hogweed, seakale, wood sorrel, dock) are four centuries on now consigned to the forager’s domain.
That’s not the case with scorzonera – praised by Evelyn – and the inexorably yoked salsify. Not that it’s easy to buy either of these edible roots, distantly related, that are similar in appearance (long, thin, tapering) and taste (mild and sweet, a hint of oysters, some claim). Autumn is their season but they’re hardly a fixture in greengrocers or on the market.
Three years ago Waitrose chose to stock Salsify, “both the black variety of the vegetable, grown in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk and a small amount of the white variety, grown in Ayrshire in Scotland.” The black variety is indeed scorzonera, the white the true salsify, though when both are peeled the flesh is ivory cream and must be instantly plunged into lemon water to prevent browning.
Whenever I locate either, usually from an enterprising organic grower, they’re caked in mud, making purchase a kind of Root Roulette.
Scorzonera has traditionally been reckoned the superior in taste. Evelyn’s Acteria entry is keen to stress its wellness attributes (it is indeed full of vitamins) but he allows it place at the dining table: “Viper-graſs, Tragopogon, Scorzonera, Salſifex, &c. tho’ Medicinal, and excellent againſt the Palpitation of the Heart, Faintings, Obſtruction of the Bowels, &c. are beſides a very ſweet and pleaſant Sallet; being laid to ſoak out the bitterneſs, then peel’d, may be eaten raw, or Condited; but beſt of all ſtew’d with Marrow, Spice, Wine, &c. as Artichoak, Skirrets, &c. ſliced or whole. They likewiſe may bake, fry, or boil them; a more excellent Root there is hardly growing.
Scorzonera belongs to the Asteraceae family, a sibling of artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes. The best known species is the Scorzonera hispanica, native to southern Europe, known as winter asparagus, as it is harvested from October and throughout winter season. The plant has large green leaves and edible daisy-like yellow flowers. ‘Viper-gras’ refers to the legend that it was a cure for poisonous snake bites.
Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) boasts purple flowers and is a larger relative of the common wild plant, goat’s beard and share it hairy seed ‘clocks’. Domestic cultivation started in the 16th century in Italy and France, where it has always been more popular than in England. Until now when it has been take up by chefs such as Richard Corrigan, Simon Rogan and Michel Roux.
So what to do with these interchangeable rare treats? Boil, serve in wedges with lemon, or in fritters, tempura, puree, roasted or in gratin (my favourite at home is baked in an earthenware pot, layered with oozing Ogleshield cheese), which doesn’t overwhelm the subtle root taste.
Still I bow to one of my favourite scholarly professional chefs, Jeremy Lee of Soho’s Quo Vadis for his superior salsify nibbles. Hugely pleased to meet him pre-Pandemic at Bistrotheque In Manchester’s Native Hotel, where he was guest chef, cooking a three-course homage to Elizabeth David. Jeremy blanches the salsify roots, smothers them in parmesan and butter before rolling them in in feuille de brick Tunisian pastry (sturdier than filo) and bakes until golden. It’s one of the sumptuous recipes in his recently published instant classic, Cooking, Simply and Well, For One or Many (4th Estate, £30), in which he devotes a whole chapter to salsify.
Ingredients: To serve 4-6 as a nibble: six sticks salsify, juice of one lemon, salt and pepper, 120g melted butter, 90g grated parmesan, three sheets of feuilles de brick pastry.
Method: Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Wash the salsify. Peel swiftly and brush lightly with lemon juice. Bring a pan of water to the boil and salt lightly. Drop in the salsify and simmer until tender, around 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the pan when cooked and cool.
Lay the feuilles de brick sheets on a surface, cut each in half so they are half-moon shapes, anoint with butter, liberally season with salt and pepper, and strew with parmesan. Lay the salsify along the flat side and roll very tightly towards the curved side. Lay the wrapped salsify upon a baking sheet. Brush with any remaining butter and bake for 12 minutes or until golden brown and interesting.
Lift carefully from the oven and remove to a board. To serve, cut into three or four pieces, adding a little more grated parmesan.
Grow your own
If this glorious celebration of under the radar roots makes you want to access them more easily follow Evelyn’s lead and grow your own. Sow the freshest seed possible in sandy soi,l either in autumn or spring. They can also be raised in pots and planted out in spring. Contrary to the last, salsify is a biennial plant, scorzonera a perennial.