A vegetable that was a staple on Victorian dinner tables is making a comeback, as Waitrose introduces salsify in 100 stores in the hope of inspiring UK consumers with a taste of the past.
Common in the 19th century but largely forgotten in British kitchen cupboards today, the root vegetable is being supplied by Albert Bartlett, the Scotland-based potato firm.
Salsify is described on the packet as having a subtle flavour, “a little like a mild artichoke, perhaps with a trace of liquorice or, when cooked, some even claim to detect a hint of oysters.”
The vegetable featured in the Victorian classic Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861.
In one recipe, she advises: “Scrape and wash the salsify, cut them into small evensized pieces, throw them into boiling water, and add a little butter, lemon juice, and salt. Boil gently until tender, and then drain well. Heat up in a little well-seasoned good white sauce.”
The vegetable will be available at Waitrose in the black variety, grown in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, as well as a small amount of white salsify, which is grown in the sandy soils of Ayrshire in Scotland. The crop is harvested between September and December and will be on the shelves, in 350g packs for £2.99, until the spring.
Waitrose said the revival was part of a broader trend of increasing customer demand for traditional foods and ingredients. The supermarket chain, part of the John Lewis Partnership, is also introducing Fenland celery – popular in Victorian Christmas markets in London – in selected stores.
Grown in the flat deep peat fields of East Anglia using a traditional growing technique, Fenland celery is whiter than standard celery and has a sweet and nutty flavour.
Traditional turnips are also becoming more popular, with sales up 37% compared with last year, according to Waitrose.
“Both salsify and Fenland celery are largely forgotten vegetables that were favoured in Victorian England due to their versatility, especially during the winter months,” said Gary Grace, vegetable buyer at Waitrose.
“Over recent years we have seen many of the traditional cuts of meat come back into favour and we hope that customers will feel the same about salsify and Fenland celery and enjoy these vegetables once again.”
Although a lesser-known vegetable in UK homes today, salsify is still popular in continental Europe where it has been grown predominantly in Italy and France since the middle of the 17th century. It is also popular among chefs.
Michel Roux Jr, the Michelin starred chef – who is also a “brand ambassador” for Albert Bartlett – said: “Salsify is one of the most versatile and tasty root vegetables – from raw in a coleslaw to roasted with spices. Truly delicious.”
Waitrose is featuring recipes such as salsify tagliatelle with bacon and chilli and roast salsify with lemon and garlic to coincide with the launch of the vegetable in some of its larger stores this week.
Nina Cooper, a food trends expert at the consultancy Dragon Rouge, said: “Consumers are endlessly on the hunt for a discovery and want food with a story – an heirloom variety, a heritage breed, an interesting grower, a local farm. The rediscovery of a long-forgotten vegetable may well pique curiosity, particularly when we’re all looking to eat more healthily and would really welcome a different texture or an edge of new flavour.”
“And when we’re in uncertain times we do tend to look for comfort, so a veg with solid, Victorian roots might just fit the bill.
“For the Instagram generation, it’s not exactly a looker on shelf. But now ugly, wonky veg are right in vogue maybe we can learn to love its nobbliness, too.”