Parsnips power ahead

The parsnip, a native root crop, has been grown since Roman times but has been enjoying a remarkable revival in popularity in recent years.Now, fenland-based root vegetable specialist Tompsett Burgess Growers has expanded its acreage into Norfolk to capitalise on the soaring demand.

The parsnip, a native root crop, has been grown since Roman times but has been enjoying a remarkable revival in popularity in recent years.

Now, fenland-based root vegetable specialist Tompsett Burgess Growers has expanded its acreage into Norfolk to capitalise on the soaring demand.

One of Norfolk's major indepen-dent fruit and veg wholesalers,

D & F McCarthy, of Norwich, has watched sales soar, too.


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Buyer David McCarthy reported that parsnips were waning in interest a decade ago.

But he added: “We do a colossal amount of parsnips now and they've become a huge part of our business.”

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Robin Baines, who runs the award-winning Horstead Farming Group, has around 100 acres of parsnips plus 100 acres on another farm north of Norwich.

He and specialist vegetable seed supplier Paul Corfield introduced Tompsett Burgess Growers to Norfolk 18 years ago. The relationship has gone from strength to strength, and today, the Isleham-based group harvests about 1,500 acres of parsnips and carrots in the county.

Parsnip specialist Arthur Gunn has been growing the crop for about 45 years, the last 10 of those with Tompsett Burgess Growers.

His four-strong harvesting group has been lifting parsnips at Heggatt Hall, near Horstead, on land near Snetterton, and by Swaffham Raceway.

With the recent downpours, Mr Gunn had to move his lifting gang to light land to maintain supplies of freshly-lifted roots.

He has been harvesting at a more rapid rate partly because the yield has been lower but the quality is superb.

“The actual taste is excellent because they've picked up nutrients from the soil. It is absolutely splendid this year and better than normal,” he added.

About 10 years ago, the parsnips was somewhat overlooked and was regarded as a minor crop.

“Not many people eat parsnips because they haven't been promoted. And, in the main, it is only in England and Sweden where a lot are eaten. Now they're getting popular everywhere and it is likened to the sweet potato,” said Mr Gunn.

Mr McCarthy said his team would be supplying customers with boxes and boxes of parsnips. In the run-up to Christmas, they expected to be shifting up to three tonnes a week. He said: “Parsnips were absolutely fantastic last year. It has really gone berserk on parsnips.

“Everybody was after parsnips - they've been going parsnip mad.”

New varieties have helped improve the root quality as well as better growing techniques, accord-ing to Mr Gunn. The better seed varieties and the newer hybrid varieties have added sweetness.

But does the parsnip crop really need a sharp frost to guarantee that distinctive parsnippy taste?

“I think it is a bit of an old woman's tale,” said Mr Gunn... while conceding that a frost DID enhance the sweetness!

“There's no doubt about that. It does activate the sugar in them. That's quite true.”

His team, led by Frank Arndt on the harvester and his son James, who drives the tractor and trailer with Glen Wheeler, have to get the crop lifted and back to their base near Ely for washing and packing as quickly as possible.

“What we lift today will be processed within 24 hours in our factory and then go through the hydro-coolers. So, within 36 hours of coming out of the ground, they're on the supermarket shelves.”

Parsnips are also grown by Tompsett in Israel and Spain as well as England, where the crop is lifted from July to May.

“We grow organic parsnips up through the country as far as Scotland,” said Mr Gunn.

And his own preference? He really likes a roast parsnip.

“I have them two or three times a week. I must admit I like them when they get nearly brown and caramelise,” he said.

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