Aardpeer – 2
J. asked me to tell a bit more about the topinambour, also named Jerusalem artichoke or in Dutch aardpeer. It is great in the garden, provided you eat half of it, because it tends to get out of control. Member of the Compositae family, yellow flowers, a bit like small sunflowers. It was a wild plant in from the Canadian lakes to Southern Georgia and from coast to coast. Native Americans gathered them and ate the tubers long before the first settlers came from Europe. Sir Walter Raleigh lists them in 1588 in an account of an attempt to settle in Virginia. The Algonquin Indians called them Kaishcucpenauk, he writes. In 1605 the Natives Americans already cultivated them in Massachusetts. Samuel de Champlain, a Frenchman exploring the St Lawrence river, and the first governor of French Canada, writes that the roots tasted like artichokes. The prefix Jerusalem has nothing to do with that city, but with the small coastal town of Terneuzen in the Netherlands, from where the first topinambours were exported in 1617 to England.
It is probably not Champlain who brought the roots to Europe, but his compatriot Lescarbot, who gave them the name Canada in 1605. The H. tuberosus took quickly root in the Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy, where in 1616 they grew in the garden of Cardinal Farese.
The French name Topinambour has an even more interesting history. In 1613 six natives of the Brazilian Tupinambas tribe were brought to France and shown to an amazed public. Thence the picture. Using their name for a new vegetable from the new world seemed good publicity, both came from far away over the big seas.
When the topinambour arrived in 17th Century Europe it was a welcome addition to the menu. In 1617 a mr. John Goodyer planted two small tubers in his garden in Mapledurham in Hampshire. Few years later he was providing all gardeners in Hampshire with topinambours.
Early English recipes instruct the cook to boil and peel them, then they should be sliced and stewed with butter, wine and spices. But in England the public found the taste flat, and the Helianthus tuberosus became a curiosity rather than a crop. And with recipes like the one above it does not surprise me.
A slightly different and more attractive recipe is found in the famous cookbook of le Sieur de la Varenne, le Cuisinier Francois from 1651: Cook them and peel them, and slice them, and fricassee them with very fresh butter, an onion, salt, pepper and vinager, and just before serving a dash of freshly grated nutmeg.
Sources: cabbages and kings, jonathan roberts and Histoires de legumes, Michel Pitrat et Claude Foury.