Friday, June 11, 2010

A Salute to the Skirret Root

Skirret Foliage and Roots Skirret Root Texture

Above, left: a view of the complete skirret plant; right: a closer look at the texture of the skirret root. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

Skirret (gerla) is hot and dry. Eaten in moderation, it is not very helpful or harmful. If someone should eat a lot of it, its heat and dryness would stir up fevers in him and harm his intestines. A person whose face has weak skin, which easily splits, should pound skirret in a mortar and add oil. When he goes to bed at night, he should rub it on his face, continuing until he is healed.

—Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica

Although the twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen (German, 1098–1179) discusses the medicinal properties of skirret, it was actually more important as a root vegetable than as a drug plant. Today, we grow skirret in the culinary bed in Bonnefont garden. While working in this bed recently, I dug up several skirret plants—they tend to invade the areas of neighboring plants—and I was impressed with the pinnate foliage and the attractive, deep-green color of each leaf. More than that, the roots really caught my interest with their pure, white centers and finger-like, bumpy textures. Although some sources claim that skirret roots have a bitter taste, I found them to be somewhat sweet, and the texture a little fibrous. In order to improve taste, the roots of the skirret can be prepared in several different ways, but the inedible core should be removed before cooking. Skirret was eaten throughout the Middle Ages—its taste was improved by the addition of wine and honey—until it was supplanted by the growing popularity of the potato. By the end of the eighteenth century, the use of skirrets in cooking had mostly vanished.

Sium sisarum, commonly known as skirret, or crummock, as it is called in Scotland, is a perennial plant of the Umbelliferae family, grown as a root vegetable in the Middle Ages. The roots of the skirret plant are branched in a cluster, which differentiates it from the other root vegetables of the Umbelliferae family, such as carrot, and they are distinctly slender and often resemble gray, crooked fingers. Seeds are used as the main form of propagation for skirret, although they can also be grown from root divisions.

Pliny the Elder mentions skirret as being a favorite vegetable of the Emperor Tiberius, who would request a fixed amount of the plant every year from Germany, where it grew especially well despite the cold climate.

—Corey Eilhardt

Sources:

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Laws, Bill. Spade, Skirret, and Parsnip: The Curious History of Vegetables. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2004.

Pliny. Natural History, Volume V, Books XVII-XIX. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1950, revised 1971.

“Skirret.” Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information (Royal Gardens, Kew), Vol. 1899, No. 147/148 (1899), pp. 39-42. Published by Springer on behalf of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.

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Comments (3)

  1. Emma Says:

    Dear Corey,

    How did you cook your skirret root? Can you recommend a recipe?

    Thanks,
    Emma

  2. Corey Eilhardt Says:

    Emma-
    Thank you for your question. I actually did not cook my skirret root; rather, I simply dug it out of the ground and tasted it raw. In terms of recipes, it was usually just boiled or roasted in the Middle Ages. If I find a more specific recipe, I will surely pass it along.

  3. Gardens: eat like a Tudor | Womens Health Says:

    [...] by Pliny the Elder, cow parsley-flowered skirret (Sium sisarum) was grown pretty much from the dawn of [...]

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