I called round to see Kyle at Fulcrum Farm this month to find him digging up his carrots. We know the carrot as an orange confection, but it was not always thus. The carrot as we know it is the result of the work of Dutch gardeners in the 17th century. For it was these Dutch gardeners that produced the orange carrot.
Above: Kyle's carrots - these very carrots were used in the recipes below
The carrot is a member of the umbelliferae or apiaceae family. If you are a crossword addict it might be worth stowing away the word “umbelliferous” which is, of course, derived from the carrot family name. You might also stow away the word “umbel” which is, apparently, an inflorescence, characteristic of umbelliferous plants, in which the flowers arise from the same point in the main stem and have stalks of the same length, to give a cluster with the youngest flowers at the centre. You cannot say that you have learned nothing today. Knowing the word “umbelliferous” is less useful to Scrabble players: it’s unlikely you would ever get to play it and, unless you are on a double or a triple word, you’ll only get 20 points.
The Internet is a remarkable facility and as an aid to the humble researcher, it is a useful, if sometimes not a reliable tool. Among other things the reach of the Internet allows us access to all sorts of knowledge that we would otherwise be unaware of. For example, I find that according to carrotday.com “International Carrot Day is celebrated every year on April 4th and is the pinnacle for carrot lovers all around the world. It is the day when the carrot is celebrated through carrot parties and other carrot related festivities.” Why April 4th? I cannot tell you but you have been warned.
If this is not enough for you, then let me tell you that there is a World Carrot Museum. This is an on-line facility which is designed for the visitor to “discover the power of carrots” It describes itself as “the first virtual museum in the world entirely devoted to the history, evolution, science, sociology and art of Carrots.” Note the capital “C”; carrots matter to these people.
Many of us of a certain generation will remember out mothers admonishing us to eat our carrots because they would help us see better. This was not confined to the UK; here in Australia, my wife’s mother was also insistent that carrots were consumed for the same reason. Our mothers were influenced by propoganda issued in World War 2. The British invented radar before the Germans managed to reproduce the invention. Airborne Interception Radar pinpointed some enemy bombers before they reached the English Channel. Airborne Interception Radar wasn’t, in fact, particularly effective in the early days; for example, it had trouble with determining the height of the aircraft it was spotting. It was a competitive edge for the British for only about a year but that was long enough for the carrot myth to take hold.
Above: One of the many advertisements that appeared during WWII that encouraged the consumption of carrots for help seeing during the There are some stories that the Germans started feeding their own pilots carrots, as they thought there was some truth in it. Even The British Times (6 February 1942) carried an advert that said that “not only does … Dr Carrot … entertain you at mealtimes … but he can actually – did you know? – help you see better in the blackout.”
The carrot myth, however, is not entirely untrue. While it is not the case that carrots help you see better, they do contain vitamin A, in the form of beta carotene, which is good for your eye health but it doesn’t help you see in the dark. Pliny’s Natural History was written between 77 and 79 AD. He says of carrots, in Book XXV, that “‘the juice is extracted while the plants are flowering, and is gently boiled down with Attic honey in a copper vessel over hot ashes, being a sovereign remedy for dimness of vision.” In fact, the plant that Pliny was referring to was the wild carrot whch was a very different plant from the carrot we know today. I assume that senior figures in the 1940s had read their Pliny.
Pliny’s carrots were relatively small, thin, white and much divided. Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking says that carrots were first cultivated in Afganistan in the 10th century. They were not widely used in Europe until the Middle Ages when they were red, purple or black. A yellow strain was popular in the Middle Ages because it did not colour soups and sauces. The orange carrot that we know today is the result of considerable selection by Dutch nurserymen in the 17th century in honour of the Duke of Orange.There are between 3,000 and 4,000 species in the umbelliferae family which includes the aromatic anise, caraway, dill, fennel and parsley. McGee also points out that only a few families of plants have strongly scented oils. The umbelliferae is one family and the other is the mint family (labiatae). Two enterprising folk in Perth, Kerry Fletcher and Alain Thirion, make musical instruments out of carrots (and other vegetables). You can find out about them at their website and hear them on YouTube.You may think that these two are unique. You would be wrong. London Vegetable Orchestra is “the UK's only ensemble offering audiences literally home-grown entertainment.” The orchestra includes “a soaring wind line-up of carrot recorders.” If that were not enough then you can watch here the construction of a clarinet from a carrot. What is it, I wonder, about the carrot that inspires such flights of fancy.Carrots are pretty easy to grow so long as you loook after them. You can plant them at any time except June, July or August, as they like the sunshine. Plant the seeds about 5cm – 20cm apart in soft soil. Don’t try to grow them in soil that becomes waterlogged or they will rot. If you over-fertilise them then the tuber will split. They’ll be ready to harvest in in 12–18 weeks. They can grow beside onions, leeks, lettuce, peas, radishes, tomatoes and beans but avoid growing close to parsnips, beetroot, brassicas or fennel. As you might expect there is a whole raft of health benefits claimed for carrots.
Apparently beta-carotene makes flamingoes orange We already mentioned the benefits to vision. Carrots are rich in beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in the liver. Vitamin A is transformed in the retina, to rhodopsin, a purple pigment necessary for night vision. Lack of vitamin A is one of the main preventable causes of blindness in children. But apart from this there is a whole list of claims for the benefits of carrots; they may prevent cancer and strokes, they are good for your skin (there are carrot salves), they may slow down the aging of cells, they can lower your blood pressure and they can help your anti-immune system. And, finally, described as the “crunchy powerfood” they are good for your gums and teeth. Leaving aside the apparent unbridled enthusiasm for this most orange of vegetables, our mothers may well have been right for the wrong reasons. Carrot Halwa Serves 4 Carrot Halwa is a dessert made with shredded carrots that are roasted with milk and cardarmon to make a sweet melt in your mouth dessert. I once had this in an Indian restaurant in Jakarta and I have been an addict ever since. I was lucky enough to find it at the inestimable Curry Bunga in Bermagui. This recipe can be modified for vegans as I show. Stuff 2 tsp coconut oil 3 tbsp chopped raw cashews 2 tbsp raisins 2 tbsp chopped pistachios 2½ cups shredded/grated carrots ¼ cup almond meal 1¼cups of either almond milk (for the vegans) or condensed milk ¼ cup raw sugar1 tbsp coconut oil extra Generous pinch of salt 2 tsp ground cardamom seeds Saffron strands a few soaked in a little warm water Method Heat 2 tsp coconut oil in a large pan over a medium heat Add the cashews and cook till golden (about 2 mins) then add raisins and pistachios cook till raisins puff up (about another 2 mins) Add shredded carrots and cook for 5 mins stirring occasionally.Add almond meal, soaked saffron and almond milk/condensed milk and mix well. Reduce heat to low, cook 15 minutes Add coconut sugar, extra coconut oil, salt and ground cardamon, mix in and cook for 20-30 mins stirring occasionally until all the milk has been absorbed. Depends on moisture in carrots if too thick add a drop of water Taste and adjust sweetness if necessary. Cook until desired consistency -syrupy coated carrots Serve warm or chilled by itself or with fruits such as - sliced mango, grilled plums or lychees Creamy Carrot Soup Thai Style Serves 4 x 250ml – OK for Vegans Stuff 1 tbsp coconut oil1 white onion chopped 3 cloves garlic grated Fresh ginger chopped about thumb size 500gm carrots scrubbed and chopped 500ml vegetable stock and 500ml water 1/3 cup creamy salted peanut butter Chilli, to taste Salt and pepper, to season Coconut sugar, to sweeten if necessary Fresh chopped basil, coriander and mint, to garnish Method Heat coconut oil in large pot Sweat onion, garlic and ginger a few minutes stirring constantly.Add carrots and sweat together for 5 minutes Season with salt and pepper Add vegetable stock and water Bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes until carrots are tender Blend until smooth Add peanut butter and chilli Taste for seasonings and adjust with coconut sugar too sweeten if required Serve garnished with fresh herbs