“Words are but wind that do from men proceed;
None but Chameleons on bare Air can feed;
Great men large hopeful promises may utter;
Fine words did never Fish nor Parsnips butter”.

Epigrammes (1651) – John Taylor.

During his 1993 speech to the Conservative conference, illustrating what a quaint political party he thought he commanded, our then Prime Minister John Major burrowed into his stockpile of arcane epithets to showcase his no-nonsense, down-to-earth credentials with the phrase – “fine words butter no parsnips”. Anchored between hubris and humility, this was never destined to become a populist soundbite. And at the time it was not a quote I was familiar with either, so was at a loss to understand what on earth he meant.

But after a rummage through a couple of Elizabethan anthologies, I eventually found the attribution.

John Taylor was not only a prolific English poet, socialist and troublesome unionist by day, his journalistic sideline also provided a few extra sovereigns when he became the only author commissioned to write a contemporary obituary of another subversive bard, that of William Shakespeare. Much of this I imagine, escaped our Pooterish PM.

Unsurprisingly, Taylor’s original stanza managed to sound more à la mode and descriptive than Major’s misty-eyed misquote, although neither provided an appropriate eulogy for our subterranean hero – the oft neglected parsnip.

It’s not that parsnips get a bad press, buttered or otherwise – they rarely generate any press at all.

What has contributed to the gastronomic indifference they along with many of our root vegetables are frequently obliged to endure, and why has the most adaptable and beguiling of our autumn harvest become little more than Legends of the Fall? (sorry Jim Harrison, couldn’t resist). After all, this is the vegetable that an invincible Roman empire once regarded as a food sent by Gods to reward loyal observance.

Ironically we presently live in an inquiring culinary era where the freshness of fish, the aged maturation of beef or the hanging of game, are pursued with gastronomic zeal and where restaurant menus feel obliged to provide pretentious guidance as to the individual bloodline of the slab of meat that’s about to land on your plate.

By way of contrast, our root vegetables can be weeks, often months away from their native earth and when finally stored under refugee conditions on our supermarket shelves or restaurant kitchens, belie their deteriorating vintages. Frequently de-oxygenated, often bathed in gases such as Chlorpropham (coquettishly known as Bud Nip) or simply blast-chilled, many vegetables are subsequently granted a cryogenically commercial shelf-life in spite of their precipitous loss of flavour. So whilst we remain blithely unaware of how far away or long ago our stateless root vegetables once nestled in home soil (‘new’ potatoes from the Middle East for example, can be harvested one year, burn litres of aviation fuel en route, then sit for months under storage in another) the enjoyment of a seasonal vegetable such as our homegrown parsnip, should, if your main concern is flavour, be grasped fresh and local. Then, and only then, will you find a parsnip with the earthiness of a potato overlaid with the nuttiness of chestnuts and the natural sweetness of carrots – you might count that as three of your five a day, if your mathematics are as convoluted as John Major’s quotes that is.

Since I began growing a small crop myself, I have undertaken many inspiring recipes, but as a delicious, bolstering soup was needed on a damp, sullen evening (the only highlight, prior to the arrival of the soup, being John Major now chastising Boris Johnson over his own gastronomic adventures) the formidable Jane Grigson rose sedately above them all.

And the delicate autumnal scent that pervades your kitchen when peeling a fresh parsnip, let alone its cooking, will alert you to what’s in store.

Curried Parsnip Soup from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book (1980)

1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seed
1 dried red chilli or ½ tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp ground turmeric
¼ tsp fenugreek
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 or 2 large parsnip(s), peeled and cut up
2 heaped tbsp. butter
1 tbsp flour
1 litre of stock
150 ml cream
Chopped chives or parsley

Whizz the first five ingredients in a coffee mill, or pound them in a mortar; mix the ground with the unground spice in the mill or mortar so that they blend together
Keep the mixture in a small jar, as you will not need it all for this recipe
Cook the onion, garlic and parsnip gently in the butter, lid on the pan, for ten minutes
Stir in the flour and a heaped tablespoon of the spice mixture
Cook for two minutes, stirring occasionally
Pour in the stock and leave to cook
When the parsnip is really tender, purée in the blender and dilute to taste with water
Correct the seasoning
Reheat, add the cream and serve scattered with chives or parsley
Cubes of fried bread can be served as well

(I made this once and served with fried poppadoms, which went very well)

Wine thoughts

Sherry covers so many styles, from the driest to the sweetest they can be so very different, but when chilled and paired with food they offer a heavenly partnership. So with our Colonial-inspired soup I poured a large Amontillado. This, in effect, is an aged Fino with an amber, cut-apple hue becoming darker with age. Dry, attractively pungent, but medium bodied and with a definite seam of hazelnuts running through every mouthful. A wonderful foil, which constructively offsets the creaminess of the soup.