A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)
Forgotten, Rare, and Less-Known Vegetables
Skirret (Sium sisarum)
Family: Apiaceae or Umbelliferae: umbellifer or carrot family
Other Names: crummock, sugar root, water parsnip
Healing Properties: cleanses system, increases strength, promotes urination (diuretic); ideal for hepatitis
Symbolic Meaning: joviality, sweetness of life
Planetary Affiliation: Venus, Jupiter
Like the carrot, the parsnip, and parsley, skirret is a member of the umbellifer family. It has its origins in Asia, with wild forms presumably from the Caucasus to Siberia. This root vegetable probably came to central Europe from Russia during the Middle Ages or even during Roman times; from Europe it traveled to America with European settlers. In England tasty skirret or skirwort (sugar root) dishes and pies first appeared during the time of King Henry VIII, who was known to live with pomp and grandeur. And though it is generally believed that Roman emperor Tiberius enjoyed the delicate roots, “siser”— and had them imported from the Rhine provinces in Germany—this is probably a mix-up; since skirret is not indigenous to Germany, the records most likely refer to parsnips, which we do know Tiberius imported. As mentioned before, there was not much distinction made among the various edible roots, so the same names could refer to many different umbellifers; sadly, sometimes our cultural history leads reach dead-ends.
In any case, skirret was a hit in Shakespeare’s time. A tasty recipe for skirret pie says to dredge the cooked roots in egg yolk seasoned with salt, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg and then bake them with hard-boiled eggs and peeled chestnuts in a well-buttered, covered baking dish. One can also color the peeled cooked roots with spinach juice and then sauté them in butter, sugar, and orange juice and season with exotic spices. John Evelyn (1620-1706), long-time counselor of the chefs in the British royal palace, raved about “skirret milk”—cooked roots puréed with cream or milk in which ham has been cooked, and then baked with eggs, sugar, nutmeg flower, and other exotic spices (Rohde 1969, 156).
Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566), German professor of medicine and botany, described “sisern” as “delicate and sweet in taste, similar to orange roots,” by which he meant carrots. The roots are “delicate to eat, good for the stomach, cause urine to flow, and support a good appetite.” The plant also has medicinal value: “The dried, powdered seeds put in wine are good for spasms and stomach cramps. They make married folks interested in each other in bed, strengthen the heart,1 and are useful for those who have had to vomit very much.” The juice of the cultivated plant can also be mixed in goat’s milk and taken for “leaking intestines,” a condition we know as “diarrhea.”
Illustration 98. Skirret (Joachim Camerarius, Neuw Kreütterbuch, 1586)
The astrological doctor Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) was also enthusiastic about skirret, which in his opinion has a taste superior to carrots. He considered the plant “diuretic and cleansing” and put it under the rule of Venus, who rules over the urinary organs. “The root … frees the bladder from slimy phlegm. It “helps liver disorders and jaundice.” With its diuretic, “opening” and gland-stimulating properties, it joins all umbellifers—parsnip, celery, dill, lovage, coriander, etc.—in its influence on body fluids, digestive glands, milk glands, and sexual glands.
Culpeper could just as well have put the sweet root under the rule of Jupiter, as the planetary king rules over the liver and everything that is sweet. The white roots contain up to 8 percent sucrose, which is why in many languages it’s called “sugar root” (Dutch: suikerwortel; German: Zuckerwurzel; French: racine sucrée).
Illustration 99. Skirret plant
Sadly, hardly anyone knows skirret anymore, as it has been completely crowded out by the popular orange carrot. But there is no reason to not bring them back to the garden. They like sunny, somewhat-moist soil. As they are perennials, it’s best to leave some of the root so it can come back year after year. Like so many umbellifers, skirret can take seemingly forever to sprout; for that reason it’s easier to multiply them via their roots. And, as with other umbellifers, they can be left in the garden over the winter or harvested and stored in sand piles.
Skirret Burgers ✵ 4 SERVINGS
21 ounces (600 grams) potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, cubed ✵ 21 ounces (600 grams) skirret roots, scrubbed well, cut into ½-inch-thick pieces ✵ ground nutmeg ✵ herbal salt ✵ pepper ✵ lovage leaves ✵ 2 egg yolks, whisked ✵ 1 cup (225 grams) bread crumbs ✵ 2 tablespoons olive oil ✵ 1 cup (225 grams) onions, finely chopped ✵ 2 tablespoons butter ✵ ½ cup (115 milliliters) white wine
Put the potatoes and skirret roots into a large pan with water. (The water can be about 1 inch over the vegetables.) Simmer on medium heat until tender and water is absorbed. Use immersion blender to purée the vegetables. Transfer the blended potatoes to a bowl and let cool. Mix the nutmeg, salt, pepper, and lovage leaves into the potato mixture to taste. Stir in the egg yolks. Put the bread crumbs in a bowl. Form the potato mixture into patties about the size of hamburgers. Dredge each patty in the bread crumbs. Add the olive oil to the pan. Fry the patties until browned, about 5 minutes on either side. Transfer burgers to paper towels and keep warm. Fry the onions in the butter until browned. Add the white wine. Season with pepper to taste. Serve the onions with the burgers.
TIP: This dish pairs nicely with an arugula salad.
Skirret Roots with Herbs from the Grill ✵ 4 SERVINGS
3 cups whole skirret roots, scrubbed well ✵ Optional: 4 to 6 potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, sliced ¼ inch thick ✵ ¾ cup fresh herbs, such as parsley, thyme, or sweet basil ✵ olive oil ✵ 1 cup (225 grams) cream cheese or butter ✵ sea salt ✵ pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). Prepare a baking sheet with grease or baking paper. Place skirrets and potatoes (if using) on baking sheet. Bake at 350 °F (175 °C) for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden brown. In a small serving bowl, mix the herbs with the olive oil and cream cheese or butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with skirret and potatoes.