Saturday 24 January 2009

Food Fit for Donkeys

The Spanish do not exactly hold English food in the highest regard. Whether they have actually tasted it or not, in Spain it seems to be universally condemned. And when it comes to my favourite vegetable they disparage it with the opinion that it is only fit for “donkeys and other animals”. Well, this Ass disagrees!

Arguably one of Britain’s favourite vegetables, we roast them, boil them, chip them and puree them. An integral part of many a Sunday lunch, they also find their way into soups and stews – and even into wine.

They are so popular that Britain cannot grow enough to meet the demand and import them from Poland, (who feed them to pigs!! Que barbaridad!), Germany, France and even from those who disparage them so rudely, Spain.

I refer, of course, to that king of vegetables, that tasty tuba, the delight of diners, the Parsnip. In Spanish its name is Chirivia, yet the word seems to be sadly lacking from the majority of Spanish greengrocers’ vocabulary.

It was towards the end of last November when I realised I hadn’t tasted the sweet delights of the Parsnip since I moved to Madrid. At once I set out in search of that Holy Grail of vegetables and little did I realise how elusive my quarry was to be.

Madrid boasts some wonderful markets. My absolute favourite being the Mercado de Maravillas, or the Market of Marvels just up the Calle de Bravo Murillo from Quatro Caminos metro station. This market resembles Doctor Who’s Tardis in that its narrow street frontage completely belies its huge interior. Once this was Madrid’s main northern source of food, and the reason why line 1 of the metro terminates at Quatro caminos. It was here that the horse drawn carts bringing produce from the surrounding countryside would transfer their goods for distribution across the city. Some of the metros trains were solely for this purpose. The Market of Marvels grew from this.

But despite Spain being a major producer of “Chirivias”, none of the stall holders knew what the heck I was talking about.

And that is no exaggeration: hundreds of hectares of south-western Spain are given up to the growing of parsnips. In the same way that British wine companies have a presence in the Sherry industry, so British vegetable growers own markets gardens to supply the UK consumer.

In 1995 Paul Knights established his company Knights Of Spain in Jerez de la Frontera. Farming over five hundred hectares in the provinces of Cadiz and Seville and with their own processing facilities, they supply UK and European customers with potatoes, carrots, beetroot and parsnips. Bromhams, a British based company imports seven hundred tons of parsnips every year to its base in Wiltshire.

It’s estimated that nearly a thousand hectares of Spanish agriculture are devoted to the growing of Parsnips. Yet, like a prophet in its own land, it is barely heard of.

A friend’s mother, a woman in her mid-sixties who was born in Alicante, claims to remember eating them as a child. My friend, her daughter, had to look up the word in the dictionary. She had never heard of them. I meet many people. During the months of my search I have questioned many. All have shaken their heads, some doubting that “Chirivia” is even a Spanish word.

Yet in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Granada hangs a 1604 painting by Juan Sánchez Cotán entitled, “Still life with Cardoon and Parsnips”. The Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is a Mediterranean vegetable. It was the Romans who used it for sweetening and introduced it to Britain. Before the arrival of the upstart potato it was, together with turnips, one of the main vegetable foodstuffs in Europe. They can be served in exactly the same way as the potato and weight for weight the nutritional value of a parsnip is about the same. So it hasn’t always been unknown.

Yet Pepe, who supplies my locality with vegetables at my local market, looked at me in pity when I asked if he stocked them. Surprisingly, he knew what I meant, but shook his head. “Not in Madrid, Señor. Perhaps in Valencia”, he told me with a tone of voice that suggested that citizens of that city were beyond the pale.

But I am not a man without resources. After all, I have the Internet at my fingertips. Merca Madrid is a huge wholesale Market to the south of the city. One hundred and fifty-three wholesalers spread over a one hundred and seventy-six hectare site sell to twenty-thousand retailers in the Madrid area. I sent them an e-mail. The reply came back:
Muy Sr. mío: En contestación a su correo de fecha 1 de enero de 2009, y con registro de entrada 3/2009 en Mercamadrid S.A., en donde nos solicita que le indiquemos la venta de la chirivia, le recomiendo que se dirija a la Asociación de Detallistas de Frutas, sita en nuestro Polígono Alimentario en la Nave B , en le teléfono 91 786 05 11. Esperando que esta le haya sido de utilidad le saluda atentamente, Margarita Vargas Martínez, OFICINA DEL MINORISTA Y USUARIO, Centro Administrativo, Avda. de Madrid, s/n, MERCAMADRID, 28053 MADRID.
So they passed the buck. (And between you and me I don’t think they even tried.)

Through contacts on the best website about Spain and its way of life, Notes From, I had received information that Mercadona, Spain’s largest supermarket chain with over 1300 branches, sold parsnips in Catalonia. I am, of course, in Madrid, but I do have a local Mercadona, so along I went. They had a wonderful selection of produce, but not a single parsnip. So I sent them an e mail, asking why they sold them on the coast but not in Madrid. They replied:

Estimado Sr., En primer lugar agradecerle la confianza y el tiempo que ha dedicado al expresar sus inquietudes e informarle que vamos a pasar su sugerencia de incorporar chirivias en los centros Mercadona de Madrid a los responsables correspondientes. Gracias por su interés, MERCADONA S.A.

But that was nearly two months ago now and, a, I haven’t heard from them again, and b, there are still no parsnips on the shelves.

Friends told me to try El Corte Inglés, Spain largest department store chain with many supermarkets that have sections aimed at the guiri, the foreigner, but to no avail. Shops in Madrid that actually specialise in only goods from the UK do not stock produce other than baked beans and mushy peas. I tried market after market, shop after shop, in all parts of the city. I drew a blank.

But then this week I had to travel down to Murcia, on the coast. This is Guiriland. Many retired Brits come here to while away their twilight years. In fact the restaurant in Mazarron we used boasted of its “International Clientele”, and apart from three workmen propping up the bar, there wasn’t a Spaniard in sight.

And in the local Mercadona supermarket they had parsnips. They were past their best and to be fair to the supermarket an assistant was busy clearing the shelf. I raced her to the last by filling my basket with what turned out to be a straining plastic bagful, but that only cost me less than five Euros. Well done Mercadona, with your “siempre precios bajos”, always low prices.

The check out girl looked askance at a dozen chirivias rolling towards her on the belt. My Spanish colleagues, probably a tad embarrassed, explained we were from Madrid and there they were impossible to buy. “Well”, remarked the girl, “it’s only the extranjeros, the foreigners, that bought them in Mazarron. She was very polite, but couldn’t resist a tiny smirk when I said, “So, they are only for the guiris”. In fact, as I later remarked to my friends, the name of the vegetable should probably be changed to “Guirivia”, to reflect that fact.

But now I have a tiny fear. For two and a half months I have been seeking the parsnip. In my mind there are memories of a sweet, rich taste. I have just returned from the south. The Mercadona bag sits in front of me, the packaging on each parsnip as yet unopened. Will I be disappointed? Will friends to whom I have promised a taste think me deluded? I hope not.

Only fit for “Donkeys and other animals” indeed! Hee haw!


  1. Made me laugh. You can find the tidbits of interesting AND funny things in life. Parsnips? I've never eaten one and don't think I will.

  2. I don't like parsnips myself but I agree that they're essential in British cooking and I'm surprised that despite them being grown in Spain, they're so unheard of. Thank you for an interesting read.

  3. They're good for Camels? I've had and despised many a parsnip!

  4. Parsnips!.... fantastic vegetable, I could eat them all day; roasted, boiled, steamed or made into soup. Such a lovely tasty vegetable, especially with your Xmas dinner.

    I was so pleased to see that they do grow well in spain, as I am planting out my seedlings today, I have about 30 parsnips going in raised beds. Our local Mercadona (Pego) sells them, but they are quite expensive, that's why I have decided to grow my own.
    Goodbye from another 'Parsnip' nut.

  5. Your greengrocer was right, here in Valencia where I live chirivías make part of the typical regional stew, the "Putxero" which is the levantine version of Cocido Madrileño -richer in vegetables, poorer in meat. Anyway, eating them "on their own" is very rare.

    But I'm from central Spain and I have to admit that in my homeland we would never eat them. I think that sweetish flavour is not very appreciated.

  6. I know the feeling, but I can tell you that the Leroy Merlin at San Sabastian de los reyes have seeds for Parsnips!!

    I have just found out that my company lets us grow a few things on the land next to our car park :)

    Oh my Madrileña wife misses them from her time in England too. We only really like them roasted though.


  7. Roasted, particularly glazed with honey, and they are fantastic! Unfortunately I have no room to grow anything in a fifth floor apartment with no terrace.

  8. I love parsnips !!! But I had to look up how to say it in Spanish since I've never heard anyone from Mexico mention Chirivia. I am about to roast some with carrots and a little honey, balsamic vinegar & thyme. YUMMY.