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There’s nothing grand about the Jerusalem artichoke. The plant thrives on benign neglect, and its gnarled tubers look humble enough. Do not be deceived: its flavour is a revelation – subtle, sweet and quite irresistible.
In 1773 the great American naturalist William Bartram set out on his travels through the southern colonies of North America to make the first scientific record of the continent’s flora and fauna and its native inhabitants. Today we know the indigenous peoples as Native Americans or Amerindians; in Hollywood westerns they were Red Indians; but to most of eighteenth-century Europe they were simply “savages”. Bartram, however, was remarkable for the respect and open-mindedness with which he approached human beings and the natural world in general. The natives in return embraced him as a friend. The Seminole Indians of Florida called him Puc Puggy – Flower Hunter – and were generous with their help and hospitality.
Bartram found tobacco, squash and beans being cultivated on the plains. In the hills, he found potatoes and two kinds of sunflower: Helianthus tuberosus, whose tubers were valued for eating – this is the plant we know today as the Jerusalem artichoke – and Helianthus lenticularis, which was grown for its oil-rich seeds.
By this time the potato was already part of the European diet, and the Jerusalem artichoke was appearing on the market under various names – earth puff, Canadian potato or earth apple. When and why it became a Jerusalem artichoke is not certain. True, its delicate taste is close to that of the luxurious globe artichoke. But where did the Jerusalem come from? For a long time it was thought to be a corruption of girasole, the Italian for sunflower, but recently it has been argued that the term predates the first use of the word girasole. A new and somewhat far-fetched suggestion is that the vegetable was introduced to England from Terneusen in Holland and that ‘Jerusalem’ is a corruption of that name.
The origin of the Turkish name is less complicated. Yer elması means literally ground-apple, though in some places it is still known by the older name of yıldız kökü, or aster root, because of the aster-like golden flowers that appear in early autumn. The flowers are short-lived, but visiting fields where the plants are in full bloom is a joy.
At Kırklareli, in eastern Thrace, an old lady with a garden full of the flowers told us she could not even remember planting them; they just kept coming up year after year. Unlike potatoes, she said, Jerusalem artichokes should not be dug up until they are needed. The knobbly tubers stay fresh and crisp and become even sweeter if they are left in the ground; after frost and snow, she insisted, they really taste like apples.
The farmers we spoke to in Beypazarı, near Ankara, where most of Turkey’s Jerusalem artichokes are grown, were in no hurry either. They harvested at any time until spring, they said, as the crop can stay in the soil for up to a year without suffering. Plants are simply left to dry in the field, which does away with the need for storage.
Jerusalem artichokes are fully hardy and will survive where potatoes cannot, thriving in poor soil. “Plant it where you will, it overrunnes the ground,” as one writer observed in 1641. Whereas spinach, carrots, onions and other vegetables demand large quantities of nitrogen for commercial cultivation, the Jerusalem artichoke needs no fertiliser, which makes it environmentally safe.
Nutritionally, the tuber has valuable properties: as a diuretic, it benefits the kidneys; it stimulates the milk of nursing mothers; and it is considered a potent aphrodisiac. But what makes it most unusual is that, thanks to the interesting substance inulin, it tastes mildly sweet but does not interfere with blood-sugar levels and is therefore well tolerated by diabetics. Inulin is hard to digest, however – hence the vegetable’s reputation for causing flatulence. The answer is to do as the Turks do: add a little rice to the cooking and a garnish of fresh parsley or mint at the end, to make it more digestible.
The vegetable was much appreciated in Ottoman times and still has a special place in Istanbul cooking, but it is difficult to establish exactly when it arrived in Asia Minor. It was probably before the potato. James Stanislaus Bell was sent by the British government to Circassia, in the Caucasus, before the Crimean War and lived there for three years. On his return in 1840, he published a journal in which he described an encounter with a local prince: “Having remarked to the prince that I had never seen potatoes in his country, he exclaimed that there were plenty of them. Accordingly, next morning he brought us specimens of his potatoes, which we found to be excellent Jerusalem artichokes. The former esculent seems to be here unknown…”
In 1844 the potato makes an appearance in a cookery book published in Istanbul, but it is still clearly a novelty. Mehmet Kâmil’s Melceü’t-Tabbâhîn (The Refuge of Chefs) includes a recipe for beef stew with potatoes. In his enthusiasm for the new modernising reforms, he gives the dish a European name, Estofado con batata. Escalopes of beef are studded with garlic and pot-roasted, with the addition of tomato juice and “a kind of Jerusalem artichoke called a potato”.
In due course potatoes became part of everyone’s diet, in Turkey as elsewhere, and overtook all other root vegetables. The Jerusalem artichoke is still sought after, of course, by those with a delicate taste, but it now belongs to the realms of haute cuisine.
Order Cornucopia 30 for the recipes.
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