What are neeps? A traditional Scottish vegetable.
What are neeps? Often asked by newbie guests at a Burns Supper. Usually they’re chappit. (the neeps, I mean, not the guests). Answer: the yellow mushy stuff.
What are Neeps?
What are neeps? Simple, a neep is a root vegetable and baffling item of Scottish cuisine. Hang on while I try to explain the neep's role in Scottish heritage. I am tempted to call this piece 'Truly, Madly, Neeply'.
So, you don't know what a neep is? You're not from around these parts then? The easy answer to the question what are neeps is that they are globe-shaped root vegetables of a purple hue. About the size of your head. You think I mean a swede (of the vegetable kind)? Or a turnip? I don't know. My dad called the large purple kind 'neeps' and the small white ones 'swedes' - but I know English folk label them the other way round. (Another unbridgeable cultural gulf, I suspect.) So, there is more to the question what are neeps than I first thought. OK, they're a big purple root vegetable. In Scotland, they are often fed to sheep when grass is scarce in winter. Sometimes, the sheep will be let into a field of neeps, still in the ground, and simply chomp their way through them.
And it is possible that neeps even have a political dimension these days. Check out this picture:
(Pictured here) See? Same neeps grown by same farmer in Fife, probably in the same field, now sitting side by side but with different labels. Maybe the supermarket (in Scotland) thought it best to reassure English buyers or other supporters of the Union that it was OK to buy a traditional Scottish root vegetable. (I don't know: I'm making most of this up.) And I don't want to read too much in to the fact that it's the British neep - sorry, swede - that has the reassurance that it's 'delicious roasted or mashed' whereas the Scottish neep is just a neep. Anyway, vive la difference, though patriotic fervour would still make me plump for the one on the right. Confused? This isn't helping, is it?
Neeps at Halloween
Anyway, those wee white globes that my father called swedes (in spite of the picture above), would be no use at Halloween because, traditionally, neeps were hollowed out to make that de rigeur lantern - a role now taken on by pumpkins. For some years now, this bloated New World usurper has diminished the role of our own home-grown vegetable at Halloween.
There were lots of traditions associated with this time of year in Scotland. Most of them have disappeared but you can find references to them in the poem ‘Halloween’ by Robert Burns.
These old habits involved, for example, peeling apples, pulling up the stalks of kail, burning nuts, and various other rituals for the purposes of divination. (For example, the future was read by the way the peel landed when you threw it over your shoulder, or by the shape of the kail root. Harmless fun.) It’s all a very long way to supermarket shelves groaning with ghoulish paraphernalia, and the pumpkin as a symbol of Halloween globalisation. (Ooh, get him...)
Neeps as objects of desire
There was one other ritual, which probably still goes on in rural Scotland. I’ve seen it myself when I lived next to a farm. It had nothing to do with Halloween, to be honest. All it required was a great heap of neeps to be piled in the farmyard, before they were fed to the sheep. (As in the neep picture here where they appear in such a location.) From despised root vegetables, they were suddenly transformed into objects of desire. I’ve seen respectable folk stop their cars – though leaving the engine running – and help themselves. I suspect this was more to do with soup-making rather than anything more sinister. You could call it kidneepping or just An Encounter in Neep Space.
These old-established northern Scottish farms, some of which grow neeps, are often transferred from father to son. This is a real example of widespread neepotism.
Anyway, I spotted these particular neeps in a wicker basket in a posh farm shop (pictured here). And it is to avoid paying a lot for a neep in such places that I suppose country folk like to help themselves from the farmyard. Oh yes, I catch myself eyeing up neep-heaps most winters...
Please stop, I know enough about neeps now...
By way of enlarging upon the answer to what are neeps, here are some neep-spotting field notes, should you find yourself travelling around Scotland with nothing much else to look at in the countryside. (This means you’re probably near Carnwath.) First of all, while neeps are usually silent, they can sometimes make a rhythmic sound - a bit like ‘thunk-thunk-thunk’. This is when they are harvested on a large scale by some kind of tractor-drawn devilish device, which projects them via a tilted conveyor belt into a metal cart drawn in parallel to the first tractor. First time I saw it on a cool autumn day I thought there was a bit of a neep in the air. It was hypnotic, trust me; but then I don’t get out much.
Secondly – and not many people know this – you can tell if a field has neeps in it immediately after sowing because the upturned earth, or drill, pronounced dreel in Scots, has a profile like an inverted ‘V’, with an indentation on the peak. Without the indent, you’re possibly looking at carrots, or more likely, tatties. I can’t remember. In fact, that was so dull that I dozed off myself for a minute there. So, by way of answering the question: what are neeps, that just about wraps it up. Phew. Except for:
Burns Suppers and Neeps
However, for those unhappy souls who have actually got so little to do in the office that they’ve read this far, the mention of tatties (potatoes, potatoes – do I have to explain everything?) leads on to the final stage in the life cycle of the common neep. Aside from winter feed for the beasts, you’ll find them on your plate at a Burns Supper. They are the orangey mush next to the haggis and alongside the aforementioned tatties (aka yellow mush). Both neeps and tatties will be chappit, that is, mashed (really ‘chopped’). And I’ve just had the terrible thought that it’s only a matter of time before haggis is served not with chappit neeps but with chappit pumpkin.
So, farewell to the neep’s role at Halloween – in any case an unappealing grisly kind of celebration at the beginning of winter, now hijacked by commercial tat. And you don’t even get a drink. But Burns Suppers are something else. Here the humble root vegetable will continue to play its culinary part. Fellow Scots – stand by your neeps!
Cooking neeps for Burns Night? See below...
Cooking Neeps for Burns Night
Sorry, forgot to mention: to accompany haggis, simply peel a neep (or part of it), chop small then boil till tender. Salt and white pepper are usual, though remember the haggis will probably be peppery too. Sophisticates amongst you should add a dash of nutmeg. When tender, drain and mash, just like you'd mash potatoes, I mean, chap tatties. That way, you get chappit neeps.
In case you still lack confidence in neep-spotting, there's a picture of haggis, neeps and tatties at a Burns Supper on the link here, which also gives you hints on a typical Burns Supper format.