By Benjamin Daniells
At The Black Swan, this brutish vegetable is as much a part of the family as Tommy himself. Spoken of with reverence and awe, it’s beyond doubt our favourite beetroot. We’ve even given them a nickname. Craps.
They have featured in magazines across the world and just lately they were on TV in America. When photographers come to visit, the one thing they always want to shoot is the beet.
Crapaudine is a French term, which translates, quite simply, as ‘female toad’. A name earned from an uncanny resemblance to the ugly amphibians many people run a mile from, but there’s something strangely attractive about that gnarly skin. It feels almost like tree bark.
From a growing perspective, they are particularly tedious. You plant 100 seeds, only 30 germinate and of those maybe 10 make it to produce a beetroot. Now imagine scaling that up and trying to ensure thousands for the menu. Grrr.
By mid September, talk of the beet harvest was reaching fever pitch. The first ones were pulled from the ground, awash in autumn sunshine, weighing nearly 1kg each. They were plentiful and every one we reached for was a giant. Deeper into November the uglier side began to show.
When it’s pouring with rain and a howling gale the craps still need digging. Sometimes it’s tempting to put things off hoping that the weather might improve but that risks night falling and head torches bobbing as we dig. There is so much to do before the beet even arrive in the kitchen that it’s difficult not to begin to resent them slightly.
When harvest starts we hunt down the biggest ones and allow the tiddlers to bulk out. Yet unlike most beet, which poke above the soil to give you a clue, the crapaudines remain hidden. You have to get down to ground level and inspect each one individually. The leaves would seem a good indication of size, yet more often than not, a lot of leaves usually means three craps growing in close proximity. Rather than the vast roots we hope for, when growing so closely, they tend to wrap around each other and only reach the proportions of the puniest carrot.
With that said, our commitment is unwavering. Digging up a beefy crapaudine beetroot feels like you’re unearthing ancient buried treasure. An appropriate analogy, as this variety of beetroot is around 1000 years old. It seems incredible that this particular strain of vegetable has managed spanned the ages especially since it demands so much effort to get a good crop. You wonder why anyone would go to the trouble?
Until you taste them!
The trials of seeding. The mission to protect the seedlings. The chore of endless digging. The relentless preparation. The dedication in the kitchen. For that one plate of food. It’s all worth it!
The flavour, the texture, the experience. Eating crapaudine at The Black Swan is a treat beyond comparison. Many may think we’re crazy. At times I thought we were crazy. Yet when you sit down and taste the dish, it all comes together and makes perfect sense.
Follow Ben over on Instagram @theblackswangarden to see what else he is growing and foraging here at The Black Swan at Oldstead.