By Benjamin Daniells
At The Black Swan, this brutish vegetable is as much a part of the family as Tommy himself. Spoke of with reverence and awe, you’ll often hear the team gushing about our favourite beetroot. We’ve even gave them a nickname. Craps.
Our craps have featured in magazines across the world. Recently you may have seen our craps on TV in America. When we have photographers come to visit, they always leave with a few shots of our craps. It’s safe to say there will forever be a place at the Black Swan for Crapaudine Beetroot. However, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is love at first sight. It’s really not the case. Oh how I hated them.
Crapaudine is a French term, translating, quite simply, to female toad. They’ve earned this name through an uncanny resemblance to the ugly amphibians many people run a mile from. When you do get up close and personal with this ancient beet, rubbing your hands over their gnarly skin feels stroking tree bark.
From a gardening perspective, it could be said they are a little tedious. If you planted 100 seeds, only 30 would germinate and produce seedlings. Of those 30, maybe 10 would make it to the end and produce beetroot for our menu. Now imagine scaling that up and trying to ensure a few thousand 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. It’s a sight to behold. At first the beet are plentiful, everyone we reached for a giant. Deep into November though, when the summer sun has truly gone, the ugly side of these beets began to show.
Whether pouring rain, frozen ground or howling gales, the craps need digging. Sometimes conditions mean we are out picking whilst darkness falls, lights from head torches bobbing in the night. This is before the beet are even prepped for the kitchen or have spent hours simmering in the restaurant. Needless to say, it didn’t take long before I started to resent them slightly.
At harvest we need to hunt down the biggest ones for picking and allow the tiddlers to bulk out. Yet unlike most beet, which poke above the soil to give you a clue, the crapaudines like to 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 mean three craps growing in close proximity. Rather than the vast roots we hope for, when grown so close, they tend to wrap around each other, failing to reach proportions above 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. Which goes a long way to conveying why we are so besotted by them. For anything to have survived a millennia on this planet is incredible. For a particular variety of vegetable to span the ages is unbelievable. And with the effort needed to get the crop in the first place, it’s even more perplexing.
Until you taste them.
The trials of seeding. The mission to protect the shoots. 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.
For those of you looking to come and dine with us in the near future, these magical beetroot have one more trick up their sleeves. During the next couple of weeks we’ll be harvesting the remainder of the crop before winter really kicks in. It’ll be the last time we head into the field, as we transfer the beets to a straw clamp on the farm. Over winter, they’re sweetness will amplify and keep well into the next year.
Follow Ben over on Instagram @theblackswangarden to see what else he is growing and foraging here at The Black Swan at Oldstead.