February 27, 2012
The loves of my life are my family, food, gardens and travel. When they all conspire into one I am a happy camper. I spent this past holiday season in Normandy, France with my family and friends going to markets, eating and learning about new wonderful dishes. While preparing one of the many holiday feasts, I observed my host scrubbing away at a mound of root vegetables. Seeing this as an opportunity to build my French vocabulary we began to play the naming game—we call them potatoes you call them “pomme de terre”; we call them turnips, for you they are “navets.”
I recognized most of the vegetables and was able to name them off until we came to a small knobby pale fingerling. Truthfully, they were not very attractive. They resembled maggots or larvae. They did look vaguely familiar to me, perhaps I had seen them at farmers market, but I didn’t know their name. Francoise, however did not hesitate, “C’est les crones!” She wasn’t too happy about the work it took to scrub each little nook and cranny of the small tubers but worked away, her smile suggesting that it would be worth it in the long run. She was correct. After the vegetables were roasted, they were delicious. They were crunchy and tasted nutty and a bit sweet.
I thought that once I got back to Marin County, the home of designer vegetables, it would be an easy task for me to find them and try them out for myself. I searched the Marin County farmers market to no avail. I asked my farmer friends and got into lively discussions about Jerusalem artichokes, salsify and parsnips but no one could show me the knobby somewhat unattractive root vegetable.
After a long Internet search I finally found out the information I was seeking. It was no wonder that my French host was familiar with the “Crosnes,” pronounced “crones” or more formally, Stachys affinis. The vegetable’s common name, crosnes, is also the name of a French village. Crosnes, also known as Chinese artichokes, or knot root, are a member of the herbaceous mint family (Lamiaceae). Above ground the plant is an attractive, perennial herb; it has upright stems with hairy crinkly leaves. Small white or pink flowers appear in the summer. It can spread easily to make a ground cover. It is easy to grow but you rarely find it in gardens. It is the tubers, growing underground that are the delicious vegetable. The tubers are easily harvested, usually starting in October. Once they are harvested they have a short shelf life and as my host will attest, they are difficult to clean and prepare for cooking. This may be why many cooks have eschewed them.
Crosnes have long been grown in China where they are called “kamulu,” meaning gentle dew. Chinese poets have referred to them as strings of white jade beads. They are most often pickled in Chinese cuisine. In Japan they are called “chorogi.” They are pickled and often dyed red leaving them looking exotic compared to their humble somewhat tawdry, natural state. They are eaten as one of the Osechi or traditional New Year’s foods. Each Osechi food has is displayed in a bento box and has special meaning. Black soybeans with chorogi are eaten for longevity and health.
Auguste Pailleux, a retired businessman and avid gardener, introduced Crosnes to France. In 1882 he traveled to China to research unusual plants. He was given Stachys affinis as a gift by a Beijing doctor. He returned to France and planted the odd-looking tubers. His first crop was successful yielding 3,000 kilograms. Because he thought that the name would be difficult to remember he gave them their now common name Crosnes, taken from the name of his home village. Crosnes became popular in French cuisine, and are still widely cultivated in the Loire, Bretagne, Bourgogne and Somme regions of France.
Crosnes were introduced into the United States in the late 1800s but were never popular, probably because it is a bit of a nuisance to prepare them for cooking. It is now possible to find them offered by specialty growers, especially in southern California.
Being in the mint family, Crosnes are easy to grow. They are drought tolerant requiring average amounts of water. They will provide you with a mat of green leaves and small flowers in the summer months. In the fall when the leaves turn brown, the tubers are ready to harvest. You can assure a return crop for next year by leaving some of the tubers in the ground. They will sprout new top growth in the spring.
Crosnes are mainly made up of carbohydrates. Three ounces contain 17 grams of carbohydrates and 2.5 grams of protein. Which means you can get a lot of crunch for very few calories. After the somewhat tiresome, thorough scrubbing, which is required, they can be served raw in salads or with dips. They make a good substitute for jicama. They can also be stir fried, roasted or simply sautéed in butter.
My research on Crosnes led me to discuss this knobby little vegetable with a number of local farmers and gardeners. Hopefully they too will become fascinated by this humble, homely but delicious vegetable and be inspired to include them in their next crop.