-So in Winter
The gardener sees what he will never see.
Catalogues bright with colour and with hope,
Dearest delusions of creative mind,
…Fabulous flowers flung as he desires,
Fantastic, tossed, and all from shilling packet
-An acre sprung from one expended coin,-
Visions of what might be.
‘The Garden’, Vita Sackville-West
Things are quiet in the garden at the moment so this is the time to plot the growing year ahead, nosing through abundant seed catalogues and plotting how this year the potager will be the Eden that the nurserymen promise. There are all the winter root vegetables that we know and love, and winter salads, but also a lesser grown star vegetable that is having its moment right now: Helianthus tuberosus, the Jerusalem artichoke, loved and loathed in equal measure. For John Goodyer, an English planter quoted in Gerard’s Herbal of 1621, it is ‘a meat more fit for swine than men’, whilst for Bunny Guinness, extoling their virtues on Gardener’s Question Time recently, they are a valuable source of support for ‘our inner garden’ which she advises us to tend well for optimum intestinal health, to rock the cradle of our second brain.
There is controversy over the origin of its name; certainly it is not peculiar to Jerusalem, but native to South America. One theory; it is a corrupted version of the Italian ‘Girasole’ as they do look very like the sunflower, and are known in parts of America as ‘The Sunchoke’, another that the Puritan settlers in the New World referred to them as ‘The New Jerusalem’ they were planting in the wilderness. Their taste has been likened to that of the globe artichoke and they are both from the daisy family of Asteraceae.
Anyway, digging them up is great fun; you feel the exhilaration of a truffle pig when your fork unearths these nobbly prizes from the heavy winter mud. Its worth digging over the ground twice as they have a knack of hiding from you, and nothing is more exciting than when you break up a clod and find the one that almost got away. Its quite hard going getting them up but there is an added value, I find, in eating something that you have had to work for a little bit. They have the snap somewhere between that of a carrot and a water chestnut, and you can do almost anything with them; roast, puree, grate raw, treat like a spud.
The tubers are ready from late autumn and through the winter and can tolerate most soils unless waterlogged or very acidic. When the leaves fade at the end of summer, cut down the flowering stem, leaving about 10cm of stalk, so you know where to find them. It is wise to lift the last of the chokes and replant in new fertile ground as winter turns to spring, for next year’s crop. Be careful what you wish for: dig up every last scrap of tuber; any left behind can cause havoc as the sunchoke is a ruthless garden space invader.