A traditional Scottish vegetable
What are neeps is a question perhaps asked by newbie guests at a Burns Supper. Usually they’re ‘chappit’, meaning mashed. (The neeps, I mean, not the guests). The neeps are the yellowy-orange vegetable found next to the tatties. Serve with pepper and nutmeg. Sheep like them too.
Simply put, a neep is a root vegetable and baffling item of Scottish cuisine. Hang on while I try to explain the neep’s role in Scottish heritage. I am tempted to call this piece ‘Truly, Madly, Neeply’.
So, you don’t know what a neep is? You’re not from around these parts then? The easy answer to this neep uncertainty is that they are globe-shaped root vegetables of a purple hue. About the size of your head.
You think I mean a swede (of the vegetable kind)? Or a turnip? I don’t know. My dad called the large purple kind ‘neeps’ and the small white ones ‘swedes’ – but I know English folk label them the other way round. (Another unbridgeable cultural gulf, I suspect.)
OK, they’re a big purple root vegetable. Some use the alternative name rutabaga, but I only found that in a dictionary. Never heard of it before!
In Scotland, neeps are often fed to sheep when grass is scarce in winter. Sometimes, the sheep will be let into a field of neeps, still in the ground, and simply chomp their way through them.
This is not a method of consumption I would recommend for your family though.
And neeps have even gained a political dimension these days. Check out this picture:
See? (Above) Same neeps grown by same farmer in Fife, probably in the same field, now sitting side by side but with different labels.
Maybe the supermarket (in Scotland) thought it best to reassure English buyers or other supporters of the Union that it was OK to buy a traditional Scottish root vegetable. (I don’t know: I’m making most of this up.)
Or maybe the Tesco Turnip Packaging Executive asked his team to come up with a way that would make the Scots feel better about the fact they narrowly lost their Independence Referendum first time round.
And I don’t want to read too much in to the fact that it’s the British neep – sorry, swede – that has the reassurance that it’s ‘delicious roasted or mashed’ whereas the Scottish neep is just a neep.
Anyway, vive la difference, though patriotic fervour would still make me plump for the one on the right. Confused? This isn’t helping, is it?
But wait, worse is to come.
The supermarket Tesco, who sell neeps as well as a few other items, more recently stuck a Union flag on a Scottish neep and have definitively plumped for swede.
Another Scottish cultural icon crushed beneath the jackboot of Unionism. Hah.
Amusingly, the grower this time is the Scotland-based neep-processing company Drysdales, down in the Borders.
Their preeminent position clearly makes them the Google of the turnip world. (Unusual sentence, agreed.)
Apparently, they grow one third of all neeps, sorry, swedes, eaten in the UK.
Their logo somewhat romantically proclaims they are ‘growing great vegetables in the fertile lowlands of Scotia’.
Further, I see the packaging features the irresistible line ‘Sweet earthy flavour, perfect mashed…’. It’s so poetic.
I believe that’s exactly how the Romantic poet John Keats would have written the first line to ‘Ode to a Neep’ if he hadn’t chosen a nightingale instead.
Neeps As Objects Of Desire
There was this one ritual, which probably still goes on in rural Scotland. I’ve seen it myself when I lived next to a farm.
It had nothing to do with Halloween, to be honest.
All it required was a great heap of neeps to be piled in the farmyard, before they were fed to the sheep.
From despised root vegetables, they were suddenly transformed into objects of desire.
I’ve seen respectable folk stop their cars – though leaving the engine running – and help themselves.
I suspect this was more to do with soup-making rather than anything more sinister. You could call it kidneepping or just An Encounter in Neep Space.
And it is to avoid paying a lot for a neep in such places that I suppose country folk like to help themselves from the farmyard.
Oh yes, I catch myself eyeing up neep-heaps most winters…maybe I have neep-envy?
However, these old-established northern Scottish farms, some of which grow neeps, are often transferred from father to son.
This is a real example of widespread neepotism.
Please stop, I know enough about neeps now…
Here are some neep-spotting field notes, should you find yourself travelling around Scotland with nothing much else to look at in the countryside.
This could mean you’re probably on the coastal section of the driving route called North-East 250.
First of all, while neeps are usually silent, they can sometimes make a rhythmic sound – a bit like ‘thunk-thunk-thunk’.
This is when they are harvested on a large scale by some kind of tractor-drawn devilish device, which projects them via a tilted conveyor belt into a metal cart drawn in parallel to the first tractor.
First time I saw it on a cool autumn day I thought there was a bit of a neep in the air. It was hypnotic, trust me; but then I don’t get out much.
Secondly – and not many people know this – you can tell if a field has neeps in it immediately after sowing because the upturned earth, or drill, pronounced dreel in the Scots tongue, has a profile like an inverted ‘V’, with an indentation on the peak.
Without the indent, you’re possibly looking at carrots, or more likely, tatties. I can’t remember. In fact, that was so dull that I dozed off myself for a minute there.
So, by way of answering the question about what neeps are, that just about wraps it up. Phew. Except for neeps and Burns Suppers, cooking neeps and neeps at Halloween.
Burns Suppers And Neeps
However, for those unhappy souls who have actually got so little to do in the office that they’ve read this far, the mention of tatties (potatoes, potatoes – do I have to explain everything?) leads on to the final stage in the life cycle of the common neep.
Aside from winter feed for the beasts, you’ll find them on your plate at a Burns Supper.
They are the orangey mush next to the haggis and alongside the aforementioned tatties (aka yellow mush).
Both neeps and tatties will be chappit, that is, mashed (really ‘chopped’).
And I’ve just had the terrible thought that it’s only a matter of time before haggis is served not with chappit neeps but with chappit pumpkin.
So – as described below – farewell to the neep’s role at Halloween – in any case an unappealing grisly kind of celebration at the beginning of winter, now hijacked by commercial tat.
And sometimes you don’t even get a drink.
But Burns Suppers are something else. Here the humble root vegetable will continue to play its culinary part. Fellow Scots – stand by your neeps!
Cooking neeps for Burns Night? Read on below…
Cooking Neeps For Burns Night
Sorry, forgot to mention: to accompany haggis, simply peel a neep (or part of it), chop small then boil till tender. Salt and white pepper are usual, though remember the haggis will probably be peppery too.
Sophisticates amongst you should add a dash of nutmeg. When tender, drain and mash, just like you’d mash potatoes, I mean, chap tatties. That way, you get chappit neeps.
Neeps At Halloween
Finally, for those of you still with me, a quick note about neeps at Halloween.
Now obviously those wee white globes that my father – OK, OK, probably wrongly – called swedes, would be no use at Halloween because, traditionally, neeps were hollowed out to make that de rigeur lantern – a role now taken on by pumpkins.
For some years now, this bloated and orange New World usurper – wait, I think I just described a trumpkin – has diminished the role of our own home-grown vegetable at Halloween.
There were lots of traditions associated with this time of year in Scotland. Most of them have disappeared but you can find references to them in the poem ‘Halloween’ by Robert Burns.
These old habits involved, for example, peeling apples, pulling up the stalks of kail, burning nuts, and various other rituals for the purposes of divination.
For example, the future was read by the way the apple peel landed when you threw it over your shoulder, or by the shape of the kail root. Harmless fun.
It’s all a very long way to supermarket shelves groaning with ghoulish paraphernalia, and the pumpkin as a symbol of Halloween globalisation. (Ooh, get him…)
If you’re pursuing neeps you might need to know more about what sort of food we eat at Burns Suppers.
Or, worse, you might have to make a speech at a Burns Supper. Here’s some background on the poetry of Robert Burns.