Riverford Wicked Leeks

does a swede really come from sweden?

I was asked by a child on one of our farm walks last year to describe the difference between a swede and a turnip. Without wanting to sink into any jokes about the England football manager team I found myself stumped. Characteristically the turnip is a smaller, whiter fleshed and not quite so sweet member of the brassica family but that's about the limit of my knowledge. So I thought I should do some research in preparation for the next time the question is asked at a walk this year.

It would appear that the turnip came before the swede. The turnip is one of the oldest cultivated vegetables in Europe dating back to 2000 BC. The bulbous bit that we eat is actually part of the stem although it grows partially underground. Before potatoes swept in as a key staple from the US, the turnip was an invaluable source of carbohydrate and protein for people and livestock.

It is thought that the swede, or the rutabaga as it's known in America, surfaced in the 17th Century, from Sweden of all places! The name rutabaga comes from the old Norse language for 'root and bag' which I would imagine relates to the appearance of the crop. They were first used as a winter fodder crop for cattle and only began being consumed by man during times of hunger. As a result they gained a reputation in the 18th century of being a 'peasant food'.

But in fact the swede is a really valuable source of nutrients, surpassing its ancestor the turnip. Swedes contain loads of vitamin C, potassium, fibre, calcium, iron, vitamin A and cancer fighting glucosinilates. They are also great at this time of year as they are one of the few 'rooty' vegetables hardy enough to grow through the winter and on into early Spring.