Turnips are a cruciferous vegetable (member of the mustard family). Turnips thrive in cool climates. The turnip that we know is thought to have descended from the Wild Turnip which is native to Central Asia, the Mediterranean and the Near East. Turnips have been sold in England since the 16th century. The turnip was a staple with the Romans and across Europe before the potato. Turnips were used for both human and animal feed. When the first fleet went from England to Australia in 1787 turnips were planted on Norfolk Island in 1788.

There are more than 30 varieties of turnip, the most familiar being the European type. This is a creamy/white globe with a purple top. The purple top comes from top of the vegetable being out of the soil and exposed to the sun.

The taste of the turnip is sweet and slightly peppery. Perhaps due to it’s association with livestock fodder the turnip is not as popular in the U.K as it is in other parts of the world. The French serve them glazed, braised or sautéd, Italians put them in risottos. The Chinese sweet roast them whereas in they are enjoyed pickled in Japan and the Middle East.

Tokyo Turnips

Superb quality Tokyo Turnips with nutritious leaves.

Turnip Records

Scott and Mardie Robb grew the heaviest turnip on record, weighing 17.7 kg at the Alaska State Fair, Palmer, USA on 1.9.04.

China produces the most turnips in the world a whooping 15,899,078 tonnes per year. This is over 10000000 tonnes more than the next five biggest producers (USA, Russia, Uzbekistan, Poland and the United Kingdom). Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for 2010.

Golden turnips

Golden turnips also known as Boule D’or Turnips, seasonally available from Rungis

Types of Turnips.

The French call the turnip a Navette, the Polish call them Rzepa and the Germans know them as Mairübe. Most people will be familiar with the white variety however some of the more unusual type of turnip include :

  • Purple Top Milan – has flattish roots and purple markings.
  • Manchester Market – is a round shaped turnip with green skin.
  • Tokyo Turnip – a fairly recent addition to the turnip family, it can be harvested even when it’s just an inch in diameter.
  • Golden Ball – is characterized its small, round shape and yellow skin.
  • Snow Ball – true to its name, this turnip type has white skin and flesh and has a subtle flavor.
  • Green Globe – is another variety of turnip with white flesh,

The Turnip has broad light green leaves, known as Turnip Tops. They have taste similar o mustard greens with a less spicy flavour. The tops contain more vitamins and minerals than the actual turnip bulb. Turnip tops have a similar nutritional profile to kale, in fact they are one of the highest vitamin A sources in the plant kingdom.


Cornish swede

Cornish grown swedes, perfect for pasties.

Swedes often confused with the turnip although they look very different. Unlike turnips which can be traced back through early history the swede is much newer. Swiss botanist Casper Bauhin crossed a cabbage with a turnip and produced a swede. This is why swede are some times known as yellow turnip. Swede are also know as rutabagg, derived from the Swedish rotabagge. The swede is also known as Swedish turnip, Russian turnip and neeps in Scotland.

Swedes reached the UK and gained popularity in Scotland before England. They were also a favoured vegetable here in Cornwall for the tin miners pasties. In the early 1800’s the British used them as an economical canon ball.

Swedes are much less popular than the turnip across Europe. With many countries using the only for animal feed. However due to their ability to thrive in colder climates they are popular in Scandinavia, particularly Sweden (hence the name Swede). They are also popular in Russia and Eastern Europe.

The International Rutabaga Curling Championship.

The International Rutabaga Curling Championship started spontaneously in December 1997. Vendors at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market began rolling their wares down the main aisle with the intent to stay warm; vendors did not discriminate about what they threw, and even frozen chickens were utilized.

The International Rutabaga Curling Championships began in December 1997. Stall holders at the Ithaca Farmer’s Market started rolling products down the main aisle to stay warm and pass time. Initially they were not limited to throwing swede with some throwing frozen chickens. Rules were later developed by the High Commissioner of the International Rutabaga Curling Championship. Meaning that only rutabagas are allowed to be used for competition ( the only exception to this was 2005 when the official rutabagas were frozen, and turnips were used instead). Much like traditional curling the aim is to roll/throw your rutabaga as close to the circular target as possible.

When is a swede a turnip? When it’s in a Cornish pasty!

Barnett Fare Cornish pasty

Diced swede one of the key ingredients in a Cornish pasty. Barnett Fare Cornish pasties, part of the Plough to Plate range.

The history of the pasty dates back hundreds of years with various cookbooks having different variations of the filling. The English word “pasty” derives from a medieval French meaning for a pie, with a filling including venison, salmon or other meats with vegetables or cheese without a dish. Early references to pasties include a 13th-century charter that was granted by Henry III to the town of Great Yarmouth, the town is bound to send to the sheriffs of Norwich every year one hundred herrings, baked in 24 pasties which would be delivered to the lord of the manor to convey them to the King. Prior to this, the earliest version of Le Vaindier (Old French) dated around 1300 contained several different pasty recipes and in 1393, recipes containing venison, beef, veal and mutton were in Le Menagier de Paris.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the pasty was popular with working people in Cornwall. It was adopted by tin miners due to its unique shape as it would form a complete meal which could be carried easily and eaten without cutlery. The dense folded pastry could stay warm for several hours and could be warmed on a shovel over a candle if it did get cold. The side-crimped pasties suggest that miners might have eaten the pasty- holding the thick crust of the pasty and eating the middle before discarding the crust. This ensures that the dirty fingers which may have traces of arsenic on didn’t touch the food or his mouth although, many old photographs show pasties wrapped in bags made of muslin or paper and were eaten end to end. This, according to a Cornish recipe book which was published in 1929 is the “true Cornish way” to eat a pasty.

Protecting the Pasty.

In 2006, a discovery by a researcher in Devon found a list of ingredients for a pasty tucked inside an audit book which was dated 1510 to calculate the cost of a venison pasty. Replacing the previous oldest recipe held by the Cornwall Records Office in Truro, Cornwall dated 1746 the discovery caused controversy between the two neighbouring counties as to the origin of the dish. However, this did not stop the Cornish Pasty Association from successfully getting the Cornish Pasty awarded Protected Geographical Identification (PGI) status by the European Commission. The specifications for the Cornish Pasty include:

  • Sliced or diced potato
  • Onion
  • Seasoning to taste, primarily salt and pepper
  • Swede**
  • Diced or minced beef

The vegetable content must not be less than 25%  of the whole pasty and the meat content must not be less than 12.5% of the whole pasty. The mandatory filling ingredients must be uncooked at the time of sealing the product which must be D-shaped with shortcrust, rough puff or puff depending on the bakers’ individual recipe.

** The specifications also note that in Cornwall, traditionally, ‘swede’ is referred to as ‘turnip’ so the two items are interchangeable however, the actual ingredient is swede. (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/343353/pfn-cornish-pasty-pgi-pdf.pdf)