Similar to a parsnip or carrot, but much sweeter and more delicate, skirret was popular at the time of King Henry VIII, only to disappear for centuries. Now it is making a comeback.
An old vegetable from Tudor times is making a comeback in Britain. There was a time when everyone from monks to kings ate skirret – a sweet, crunchy root vegetable related to the parsnip – but over time it lost its prominent status and became relegated to history. Now, according to an article in The Telegraph, this long-forgotten vegetable is enjoying a renaissance.
Skirret was once described as “the sweetest, whitest, and most pleasant of roots” by John Worlidge, gentleman gardener, in his 1677 Systema Horiculturae, or The Art of Gardening. It was popular for its delicate flavor and surprising sweetness, as well as its reputed aphrodisiac benefits.
Worlidge wrote, “By physicians [it is] esteemed a great restorative and good for weak stomachs and an effectual friend to Dame Venus.”
Skirret was most likely introduced to Britain by the Romans during occupation, but it originates in China. It is a taproot, which Diane Morgan explains in Roots: The Definitive Compendium as “the main root of a plant that absorbs nutrients and moisture as it grows vertically downward, often bearing smaller lateral roots” – similar to parsnip, carrot, beet, turnip, radish, and jicama, among others.
Unfortunately those smaller lateral roots contributed partly to skirret’s downfall. The taproot grows so many long, skinny roots that its preparation is much more finicky than that of its heftier relatives. If you think washing a bunch of muddy carrots is a pain, try scrubbing a dozen roots, the diameter of your thumb, all bunched together.
The Telegraph cites Marc Meltonville, food historian at the Historic Royal Palaces, who says, “It’s just not a commercial crop.” Skirret is “relatively low-yield, fiddly to harvest and fiddlier to prepare,” which is why it was overtaken by “bold, brash, industrial-scale potatoes and parsnips.”
Now some dedicated gardeners are trying to bring it back, and apparently it’s going well. Skirret is frost-resistant and can be left in the ground until late winter, or whenever you’re ready to eat it. It thrives with lavish watering, can be grown in exposed or maritime sites, and features beautiful fluffy parsley-like leaves with white flowers. Vicki Cooke, a kitchen garden keeper at Hampton Court, says it is difficult to keep up with demand; skirret is such a favorite in the dining room.
It is a vegetable that requires patience. Gardener John Scherk of Bristol, Indiana, describes his experience with growing skirret:
"Last fall I dug one plant and was very disappointed. I expected the roots to be small, but was frustrated to find all of them to have a woody core. This fall I dug three more plants. What a difference a year makes. All the roots were tender and free of any woody core. The flavor is somewhat like a parsnip. They sweeten up after frost and are excellent raw, boiled or roasted. Each plant was a large mass of 5”-8” long roots. Skirret prefers moist to wet soils and will readily self seed if you don’t remove the seed heads before they mature. Two thumbs up for this forgotten Old World crop!"
Have you ever tried skirret, either on your plate or in the garden?