By the second half of the seventeenth-century Holland had become a land noted for its produce. Among its cities and their surrounding environs, Leiden was especially admired. By 1630, Leiden had already devoted 238 hectares (or 588 acres) of land to crop cultivation, prompting the region to be celebrated as the garden of Holland. Here and elsewhere land was drained to grow both “grove” (coarse) vegetables – cabbage, parsnips, turnips, onions, etc. – and fine (“fijn”) – lettuce, spinach and cauliflower. Located only 43 kilometers away from Leiden, Amsterdam markets helped distribute the bounty to urban dwellers.
The Amsterdam market system was a rather complicated affair that was subject to regulatory laws stipulating who could sell what where. Sellers of carrots, cabbage and turnips from North Holland, for example, hawked their produce on the east side of the Prinsengracht while those from Leiden sold theirs on the west side. But it wasn’t as easy as being on one side of the canal versus the other. If you wanted turnips (as opposed to cheese and butter, fish or fruit) you had to go to the Noorder-markt. The Noorder-markt was not for the well-heeled. In addition to turnips, it was the place to find old and patched clothing and wooden clogs.
The symbolic implications of this lowly root vegetable run the gamut. Govaert Flinck’s painting “Marcus Curius Dentatus Who Scorned His Enemy’s Gold and Chose a Meal of Turnips Instead,” 1656 (Amsterdam: Royal Palace) awards the turnip a positive place. As described in classical sources, Marcus Curius Dentatus was a late 3rd century BCE plebian who rose to be consul of Rome. He ate simply and lived frugally, honestly and valorously. The long title of Flinck’s painting, which features Dentatus dressed in red and holding aloft a turnip in his right hand, says it all. In his version of the popular tale, Jacopo Amigoni (1682-1752) pictured Denatus more modestly dressed, his clothing a better match with the humble turnip.
If Govaert Flinck’s and Jacopo Amigoni’s “Marcus Curius Dentatus Who Scorned His Enemy’s Gold and Chose a Meal of Turnips Instead” associates the turnip with incorruptibility and humility, then Remigius Hogenberg’s (ca. 1536-ca. 1588) etching “The Turnip Wagon” does the very opposite. Based on Hieronymous Bosch’s “Haywain,” which castigates monks and nuns, princes and knights, indeed everyone for greed, lust and other moral shortcomings, “The Turnip Wagon” pictures the same societal assembly grabbing turnips from a horse-drawn cart. The substitution of turnips for hay is a play on language and an illustration of a Netherlandish proverb. In the 16th century, the noun ‘rapen’, which is the plural of ‘raap’ or turnip, evokes the verb ‘rapen’ which means to rob and steal. The image of the motely crowd collecting, cooking and even fighting over turnips is accompanied by an inscription of a proverb: “Each is out to steal (‘rapen’) by night, by day churchmen, laymen, be it woman or man; they pull, they pluck all from the wagon; he who can steal the most is soon called the best.”
It is possible that Dutch turnips made their way to Italian tables. While he does not specify the turnip, the historian Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) professed a preference for Dutch vegetables over those cultivated in Italy. Giacomo Castelvetro (1546-1616) did not weigh in on which was better but in his treatise on the Fruits, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy, 1614, dedicated to the Countess of Bedford, he noted that Italian and English cooks prepare turnips differently. “We make an excellent dish with turnips, different from the way you do here [in England], first peeled, then cut into thin slices and cooked in broth, and served with grated mature cheese and pepper.” Very different preparations were offered by Maestro Martino da Como in his “De arte coquinaria,” 1465, and by Bartolomeo Scappi in “L’arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco,” 1570. Both master chefs suggest roasting turnips by nestling them beneath hot coals although boiling is another option. Once cooked, turnips could be mashed then layered with cheese, butter, and a sprinkling of sugar, some pepper and “sweet spices” such as cinnamon and saffron.
But turnips were not always eaten. Some were hurled at human targets… at least in Venice. Beginning sometime in the 12th century, Venetians began to celebrate the “Feste delle Marie,” or Festival of the Twelve Maries, with a fair amount of gusto. Coinciding with the Festival of the Purification of Mary on February 2, the Feste delle Marie lasted eight days or more. A proper display of piety was not, however, always evident, or so suggests an edict issued by Venice’s Grand Council in 1349… just 30 years before the festival was finally abolished. It reads as follows:
“Since the Feste delle Marie has been organized for the reverence of God and the Virgin… it is necessary that scandal provoking conduct cease… from now on, the throwing of turnips or any other object is, on pain of a fine of 100 deniers, banned…” (see Thomas Devaney, “Competing Spectacles in the Venetian Feste delle Marie,” Viator, vol. 39 (2008), pages 107-125.)
Venice seems to have had a special turnip dish: a thick soup. After roasting turnips under the coals, Scappi advises mashing them and then placing them in a tinned copper or earthenware pot with enough “fat broth made from beef – I mean [broth with] the grease that comes to the surface when the meat cooks” to cover the turnips. Boil slowly, then blend in a mixture of pepper, cinnamon and saffron. Sprinkle with rosewater before serving.
For me, the most indelible image of turnips is conjured by Thomas Hardy in “Tess of the D’Urbevilles.” Hardy describes the monotonous acreage of a field planted with turnips. There was little to see. Livestock had eaten the part above ground. “It was the business of the two women to grub up the lower, or earthy, half of the root” that lay hidden in the cold, dark ground.