Crapaudine Beet (the Lady Toad), a Root to be Reckoned With

crapaudine and mango salad

Salad of Crapaudine beets, endive and mango, with (optional) sweet cicily

As I see it, my unseemly craving for Crapaudine beets can be blamed squarely on heirloom tomatoes, the gateway drug of historic vegetable addiction. Growing these famously delicious “unimproved” varieties isn’t all that easy,  but it’s not difficult, either, and the pleasure payoff is immense.

So you go along with the tomatoes for a while and then you try maybe a special snap bean saved by somebody’s grandmother. Good! Onward to Black Mexican corn, introduced in the  late 19th century, then lettuce that Thomas Jefferson grew…

In other words, you’re hooked, – or at least I was -  easy prey for a weird beet that was already being called “one of the oldest varieties” in 1882 (in Les Plantes Potagères, translated as The Vegetable Garden, by MM. Vilmorin-Andrieux, a seedsman whose company was founded in 1742).

Crapaudine beet with greens

Crapaudine beets (lady toad is a rough translation from the French), even look pre-modern, from their fat carrot shape to their rough, barklike skin. The triple top on this one is unusual, but the rest is pretty true to form – including that dancing auxiliary root; Crapaudines often fork somewhere, independent of the stoniness of the soil.

Three things to know about Crapaudine:

1. Of all the many beets I’ve grown, Crapaudine is the tastiest, dense fleshed and sweet, with just enough  – i.e. only a little – of beets’ classic earthy taste. (See below for recipes and cooking tips.)

2. It’s literally a keeper, lasting all winter in cool storage with no loss of taste or texture.

3. It’s a royal pain to grow, unlike every other beet I’ve planted, heirloom or modern. This may not be true in France, Crapaudine’s home turf, where the variety is better known and much more widely available. But France is not where we are. (It may also be the fault of the seeds, about which more at the end of the post.)

roasted root vegetables

Early spring vegetable roast: last of the fall Crapaudines, carrots and (now sprouted) rocambole garlic, spring-dug parsnips and a violet for pretty. Note the petite size of the beet, which nevertheless came through the winter without shriveling away.

Growing Crapaudine Beets

The only US source for seed I’ve found is Baker Creek.* If you act soon, there’s still time to order and plant.

Then the fun starts – although not right away; germination is slow, uneven and erratic. You have to plant thickly to compensate for possible failures, then thin repeatedly as the slowpokes appear.

Individual plants vary, even within the same row. Some roots get to a useful size, some don’t. Much wider spacing than usual – @ 6 inches apart -  helps, but not as much as would be nice, and on top of all that

They take at least three months to size up. In the same amount of time, you can get  two crops of tender, candy-striped Chioggia, the most famous heirloom beet (insofar as there is such a thing).

Cooking Crapaudine Beets

Once you get them into the kitchen, preparation’s the same as for other beets except that there’s more waste. Most of the skin can be slipped from a fully cooked Crapaudine as easily as from any other beet, but the skin is thick. There’s a gnarly area at the top that must be removed with a knife (or just cut off, if the beet’s on the small side) , and sometimes there are dark, woody spots which also require removal.

Like all beets, Crapaudines retain a lot more flavor when roasted, either in the oven or even better, when circumstances permit, buried in dying coals from a good-sized wood fire. They’re sold wood-roasted and ready to go in France, but not here, as far as I know. Truth to tell, I don’t know of anybody selling them here raw or cooked. Yet.

Beet, mango and endive salad (with sweet cicily)

No real recipe required, and any beets will work… including yellow ones, if you don’t care for the decorative red streaking. The sweet cicily, sometimes called anise fern, isn’t essential either if you have some chervil or fennel fronds around to use instead. Neither parsley nor cilantro is a substitute, but dill is an alternate that works pretty well.

Allow one roughly half-pound beet, one large head of Belgian endive and one-half small yellow mango per person, along with about a tablespoon of minced tender sweet cicily leaf stems (the stems of the plant itself are tough), some of your favorite salad olive oil and a sweet vinegar such as balsamic or sherry.

Make enough vinaigrette dressing to moisten all the ingredients, seasoning it with salt, white pepper and the minced herb.

Roast the beets. Peel and slice thinly into shapes that will fit in endive boats. Mix with the dressing and let marinate at room temperature for a half hour or so. Take off two or three outer endive leaves for boats and cut the rest into thin ribbons. Peel and slice the mango.

At serving time, assemble the salad: lift the beets from the dressing and arrange in boats. Put a few mango slices on the plate and pour on some dressing, letting it pool underneath. Apply the beet-filled boats and a heap of endive ribbons. Garnish with sweet cicily leaves. All this can be done ahead of time and refrigerated, but be sure to let it come back to cool room temperature before serving.

Roasted Roots

root vegetables prepared for roasting, including Crapaudine beets

The picture is the recipe, pretty much.

Cook the beets separately before starting. Peel everything and roll in olive oil. Place roots on pan in a single, not crowded layer and roast in a 400 degree oven, stirring from time to time, for about 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 and add the garlic cloves. Keep roasting and stirring until the vegetables are soft and well browned in spots, about 50 minutes total. Serve hot with coarse salt (stacking and violet optional).

*Concerning Crapaudine Seeds

It’s possible that some of my horticultural troubles – and those reported by others; I’m not the only one – are the fault of the seeds, not the beets. Crapaudine-savvy garden and food bloggers, most though not all of them in France, describe quite different plants.

The shape, the rough skin that gives them their name, and the long growing season are consistent, but some writers describe large leaves, others small (mine have been small), some say the leaves are green, some say red. Agricultural historian, preservationist and all-round culinary eminence William Woys Weaver says  - in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, a book I heartily recommend – that they’re “a dark metallic purple.” (Mine have been pretty standard  beet leaf red).

One commercial French gardening site offers an essay on Crapaudines that describes the seeds as small and single, citing that as proof of their great age and unimproved condition. The ones sold by Baker Creek are the usual compound beet seeds, larger, if anything, than usual. So

Seed Saving to the Rescue!

Or so I hope. Because individual gardens vary so widely in soil, microclimate,  etc., one of the main reasons to save seeds is to develop your own very locally adapted version of whatever by selecting the best examples, saving their seeds, planting those, saving the best and so on pretty much ad infinitum.

This is a two year deal with beets because they’re biennial, making the swollen roots in the first year, then going to flower the next. But they won’t survive in frozen ground; in colder regions, you have to bring them in and store them well enough to still be in decent shape for replanting the next spring.

Thanks to their excellent keeping qualities, this was no problem with the Crapaudines and I still had several good sized roots to re-inter this year.

Crapaudine beet plant, second year

Here they are, headed for flowering.

Still a long way to go, since they must not only flower but get fertilized, set seed and then ripen that seed before hard frost. Nevertheless. I have hope, and if you have read this far you probably do too. Crapaudines are obviously not for the faint hearted, but for vegetable lovers, can’t be beat.

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