Turnips were a staple food item in Europe for centuries. In ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that next to corn and beans, there was “no plant that is of more extensive use” than the turnip. During the medieval and renaissance eras they were inexpensive, easy to grow and survived the cold of winter. Root vegetables (sometimes lumped together under the blanket term “potherbs”) were often thrown into the pottage cauldron and even fed to the horses or other livestock. Physicians said they were good for the lungs and were categorized according to the Four Humours, as “hot and moist.” Due to the turnips’ appetite-stimulating properties they were thought to be best served with vinegar and salt. (Adamson)
Because they were such a commodity in rural areas, turnips tended to be associated more with the poor “rustic” classes and eventually fell out of favor amongst those with a wider variety of food options. “Turnip eater” was used as an insult, the 15th-century equivalent to “idiot” or “country bumpkin.” Regardless, recipes calling for turnips are found in a number of cookery books and recipe collections, which were written and compiled almost exclusively by upper class court or royal chefs.
Turnips, Rutabagas and Kohlrabi: What’s the difference?
Turnips, Rutabagas and Kohlrabi are three related vegetables (brassica family) that are actually very different but often confused. This has a lot to do with the complex history surrounding their names. Turnips and kohlrabi (“German turnips”) tend to be used interchangeably yet turnips are…well, turnips and kohlrabis are actually cabbage! When you hear the word “turnip” you’re probably thinking of the white and purple root vegetable, but there are other varieties of turnips that come in different sizes. As for the kohlrabi, Germans likely got the vegetable from Italy where it was called cavolo rapa, literally meaning “cabbage turnip.” The direct German language equivalent is kohlrübe, which unsurprisingly became kohlrabi.
Rutabagas, often called “yellow turnips,” are not actually turnips but rather a hybrid. They are larger, sweeter and were cultivated in the 17th century by crossing a cabbage with a turnip. Rutabagas and white-purple turnips are also both alternately called swedes, but which one it is depends entirely on where you live! To make things even more confusing, turnips are called “rape” (meaning “root”) in early English cookery books and in translations of early Roman texts. This is not the same plant that we now call rape or rapini, from whence rapeseed comes. Rape is another plant in the brassica family, but it is not a root, it’s a leafy green!
While this information may or may not be even remotely useful or interesting to you, knowing the terminology helps a lot when translating or interpreting medieval and renaissance recipes. The most common cookery terms I’ve found for turnips are rapes/rapus (English), ruben/rüeben (German), rappe (Italian), navets/naueaux (French) and wortels/raap (Dutch). Most of these words literally mean “roots” but are likely referring specifically to turnips, not rape greens or any other root vegetable. The English word “turnep” didn’t appear until the early 16th century (Etymology).
Our turnip recipe comes from a German cookbook called Ein New Kochbuch by Max Rumpolt, the head cook for the Elector of Mainz. This book was written in 1581 and the digitized version can be accessed here. The transliteration from the original book into modern German text was done by Thomas Gloning and can be accessed here.
My English translation is a combination of my own knowledge of the language and another translation by someone called M. Grasse. He decided Köel Ruben is a rutabaga while I emphatically disagree. Köel Ruben literally means “cool roots,” turnips were usually just called rüeben and rutabagas hadn’t even been cultivated yet. This could be a recipe calling for an actual turnip (or any root vegetable), but I think it’s the “German turnip,” kohlrabi. Regardless, this recipe can be made with either a turnip or a kohlrabi and will only slightly differ in taste.
Nim̄ Köel Ruben/ schel vnd schneidt sie fein klein/ quell sie in Wasser/ thu sie in ein kleinen Fischkessel/ vnd seig ein gute Rindtfleischbrüeh darüeber/ the gute frische Butter/ die vnzerlassen ist/ darein/ vnnd lasz Kurtz eynsieden/ so wirt es gut vnd wolgeschmack
Take cool roots (Kohlrabi)/ peel and cut them quite small/boil (or poach) them in water/put them in a small fish-kettle/and pour a good beef broth over them/good fresh butter/which is unmelted/and let it simmer a short time/so it will be good and well-tasting
- 1 Large Turnip or kohlrabi
- 1-2 tbsp. butter
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1 c. beef broth
- Optional: 1-2 tbsp. cornstarch
Step ONE: Boil
Peel and cut your turnip into small pieces or cubes. Put them in a pot of boiling water and cook for 5-10 minutes or until tender. Turnips are bitter so this step is necessary to get a decent taste. A true “poach” would be covering the turnips halfway and simmering at medium-low for 10-15 minutes but I don’t think that is necessary. Boiling for around 7 minutes worked well.
Note: If using kohlrabi, you will only need to boil for around 5 minutes.
Step TWO: Simmer
Drain water. Add beef broth, butter and salt. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to simmer for around 10 minutes or until soft.
If using kohlrabi, 5 minutes seems to be adequate time to get the nice soft texture we’re going for. If you prefer more of a stew/soup, use more liquid. Medieval recipes don’t include measurements so there is some room for interpretation. Feel free to adjust my measurements to better suit your personal taste.
Note: You may use vegetable broth as a substitute but I personally recommend avoiding chicken broth. The flavor difference between the beef and chicken is significant. I don’t know why, but the chicken broth version was terrible.
Step THREE: Serve
Serve as is or drain the liquid.
To make this in the style of a traditional winter German turnip stew (the modern descendant of this recipe), add a thickener such as cornstarch or potato starch. Approximately 1-2 tablespoons should satisfy. Neither of the starches is authentic to the 16th century but you may enjoy the resulting texture. The broth becomes more of a gravy, which is my preference especially when served with turnips. If you’d like to try a period thickener, bread crumbs are a great option. Add them slowly until you reach the consistency you want.
This little turnip pottage was surprisingly tasty, simple and quick to make. It uses ingredients that were available in Western Europe during the cold months. It is easy to see why stewed turnips became a traditional winter food in Germany!
If I were to choose between using turnip and kohlrabi I would definitely go with the latter. Kohlrabi is slightly sweeter and it seems to just go with the other ingredients in a way the turnips don’t. After experimenting with this recipe I personally believe that Köel Ruben is indeed stewed kohlrabi and not turnips, but either vegetable will give this dish a nice authentic renaissance flavor.
If you like this recipe, check out another great winter dish from Ein New Kochbuch: Erbeβsuppen (pea soup).
- Adamson, Melitta Weiss. Food in Medieval Times. Greenwood Press, 2004. Print
- Pliny the Elder. ca 77 C.E. The Rape. Natural History [37.60.167]
- Rumpolt, Marx. “Ein new Kochbuch”, Transliteration by Thomas Gloning, http://www.uni-giessen.de/gloning/kobu.htm
- Rupp, Rebecca. The Vegetable that Terrorized Romans and Helped Industrialize England. May 8, 2014. National Geographic. Accessed Jan, 2018.
- “turnip”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 21 Jan. 2018. <Dictionary.com http://www.dictionary.com/browse/turnip>.