• Maureen Little

Salsify and Scorzonera

Here’s a little test of your knowledge, to start this blog post: ‘salsify’ and ‘scorzonera’ are:

(a) a new designer fashion label;

(b) two closely related moths from the Americas;

(c) an Edinburgh Fringe comedy duo act;

(d) a pair of recently discovered islands in the Pacific Ocean?

Call a friend? Ask the audience? Give up?

Actually, I’m cheating with my ‘millionaire’ questions because salsify and scorzonera are, in fact, none of the above.

They are instead two of the vegetable patch’s best kept secrets ever. Although I, along with many others, tend to refer to them as a ‘pair’, much like apples and pears, they are no more related than that fruity couple. However, like our pomonous pair, they do have many similarities. They are both unassuming root vegetables which look like parsnips that have been on a very strict diet; they are both very easy to grow; and they both have a subtle flavour, which, once tasted, will guarantee they become one of your new favourites and absolutely-must-have additions to the veggie plot.

All in all, it is quite surprising that they are not more widely grown nowadays. This belies the fact that, even just a few centuries ago, salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), for certain, would have been found in just about every British garden of edibles. Hailing originally from the Mediterranean, salsify has been cultivated in that part of the world since classical times - indeed it is mentioned by both the Greek writer Theophrastus (372-288BC) and the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (23-79AD) – but salsify didn’t find its way to Britain until much later, and even then it was apparently grown for its beautiful flower, and not its root – much like runner beans when they were first introduced to Europe. I wouldn’t mind betting, though, that, once the edible nature of the root was discovered, it soon found its way onto many a plate. Bear in mind, too, that the ubiquitous potato, that we take so much for granted to bulk up our diet these days, was not, in fact, introduced to Europe until the 16th Century; so roots such as salsify would have been a staple of the cook’s offerings long before the spud.

Alongside salsify you will often find scorzonera, which, to all intents and purposes, is interchangeable with salsify in any recipe you might fancy having a go at. The most notable difference is the colour – the outer layer of scorzonera is black. Indeed, it is thought that its name is derived from the Italian scorza meaning ‘peel’ or ‘rind’, and nera meaning black. But the second part of its binomial name of Scorzonera hispanica would lead us to believe that it originates from Spain. Either way, received wisdom concedes that its home is the Mediterranean region. It gradually found its way north because we know it was being grown in France by 1660. I’m sure it couldn’t have been long before it skipped over the Channel to become a veg-bedfellow with salsify.

Growing salsify and scorzonera is no more difficult than growing carrots –in fact it is easier because unlike carrots, these two vegetables are not plagued by any particular bugs. It is even said that if you grow scorzonera alongside carrots, it will act as a carrot root fly deterrent – you will, therefore, achieve a win-win combination in this way!

You can sow the seeds of both salsify and scorzonera in April or May. Place them directly into soil with a fine tilth, at a depth or about 1cm. Sow them sparingly, and, if necessary, thin them out, so that the final spacing is about 15cm. Rows should be about 15 cm apart too. Don’t be tempted to start the seeds off in modules because they will resent being transplanted, even if you manage to catch them at just the correct stage of root development. The soil should be stone-free; otherwise, if the roots find an impenetrable barrier, they may fork and end up looking like a spindly stilt walker. And it is best if you do not manure the soil – unlike other veg, such as brassicas and legumes, they don’t need abundant nutrients to do well. The only attention salsify and scorzonera will need is to be kept weed-free, and moderately well-watered, particularly if we have a dry spell. And that’s it.

You can start harvesting your roots in early autumn, although, being hardy, both salsify and scorzonera can be left in the ground until you need them. Some roots may reach a staggering 30cm so when you do harvest them, lift them very carefully otherwise they may snap.

Although theoretically salsify is a biennial, and scorzonera is a perennial, it is as well to treat them both as annuals because it is the root that you will be harvesting – unless you want to grow them for their beautiful flowers, that is. They are both members of the Asteraceae family which means they have daisy-like flowers. Salsify has purple ones, and scorzonera, yellow blooms, and neither would look out of place in a bunch of country-style flowers.

When it comes to using the roots in recipes, the world - or rather the flavour - is your oyster: salsify’s common name is vegetable oyster and scorzonera is often referred to as – you’ve guessed it – black vegetable oyster, which gives us a clue to what they taste like. Before you get to the eating stage, however, they must be prepared for cooking. With salsify you can simply give them a good wash and remove the upper growth, and any wispy bits on the roots – as you would with parsnips. You can peel them if you like, but I tend to leave the skins on. However, when it comes to scorzonera, the skins are best removed. By far the easiest way to do this is to cook them first; then the skins will just come away quite easily afterwards. If you do peel them first, they will exude a sticky, milky liquid and discolour very quickly – pop them into acidulated water (water with some lemon juice in it) and this will retard the discolouration.

Both are delicious just roasted, but they also make tasty additions to casseroles, soups and vegetable mash. I also like to par-boil them, peel and slice them and combine them with potatoes when I make a Dauphinoise.

As they do have a discernible oyster-like flavour, I experimented and added some salsify to a steak pudding to try and recreate the traditional – and nowadays very expensive – steak and oyster pudding. This dish has a very long pedigree – apparently it was one of the 18th Century writer Samuel Johnson’s favourites – and was made when oysters were plentiful and probably cheaper than two a penny! I’m pleased to say my updated version worked and Steak and Vegetable Oyster Pudding now features regularly on the Little’s winter comfort food menu. If you want to try it for yourself, just use your favourite steak and kidney pudding recipe, and replace the kidney with salsify and/or scorzonera.