Olivia Dish

Carrots: Honey Underground

In Local Flavor, Markets, South Carolina on November 28, 2009 at 4:11 pm
bunch of carrots

The Celts' honey underground

A man bearing fresh produce is likely to win more points with me than one bearing roses.  I wonder if my friend Whit DeSpoon knows this.  He came by this morning, arms full of gorgeous stuff from the All-Local Farmers’ Market in Columbia–baby arugula, sunflower sprouts, and bunches of carrots, red and orange.

He was eager to show me the carrots in particular.  “Wow,” I said, “I love the red ones.”

“Did you know that most carrots used to look like this?” Mr. DeSpoon said singling out one of the reds, his brown eyes widening.  “I just learned this today. The Dutch started growing orange carrots to honor the Oranges, the ruling family. And that’s why we have orange carrots instead of red.”

I think I said “how about that” or something along those lines to indicate that I was impressed.  And I was.  But I was also thinking: is that really true?

So after Mr. DeSpoon left, I went to my laptop and googled “origin of orange carrots.”  I got back 366,000 results and, at the top of the list, something called the “World Carrot Museum.”

All-Local Market produce

Fresh produce from the All-Local Farmers' Market

According to the museum’s history of carrots, the modern orange carrot was bred by the Dutch around the time of William of Orange, who ruled in the 1500s when Holland was at war with Spain. The museum suggests that the House of Orange then adopted the orange carrot as the official royal vegetable.

So Mr. DeSpoon’s story holds up beautifully, as long as you don’t claim that the Dutch “invented” the orange carrot or that they did so expressly to honor William of Orange.  More likely, this history says, the Dutch discovered a wild-growing orange variation, then bred it for stability.  The Long Orange Dutch can be traced to 1721: that’s the carrot from which our varieties derive.

Or at least I think it is.  The museum’s history of carrots is almost as confusing as my mother’s explanation of why I’m eligible for the DAR by tracing our branch of the Outlaw/Grady family tree.

On the museum’s trivia page, I also learned that Celtic literature calls the carrot “honey underground.”

Not unlike biting the head off a chocolate bunny-ouch! goodbye!

Now, back to the kitchen to see if I can bring myself to sacrifice some of those sweeties for a snack.

Aha, I did. The orange ones are crisp, not woody–refreshing and lightly sweet, none of that tired, refrigerator drawer tinge that you get in grocery store carrots.  The red carrots are a deep orange under the skin and their flavor is different, more subtle, less sweet, with a cleansing affect in my mouth that reminds me of celery…or maybe more of celery root.

Can Google lead me to an answer for my next question: carrot tops—edible or poisonous?  Three million results but it’s hard to find consensus.  Assuming I survive, I’ll let you know.

  1. Carrot Tops ar definitely edible – read more here – http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/carrotops.html – I a living proof, and have eaten them in salads since the 50’s.

    As for confusing carrot history, there is an excellent summary and timeline here: http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/history.html

    The confusion comes from lack of documentary evidence, lack of a consistent naming structure and carrots growing across the world and mutating naturally to thrive effectively in local conditions.

    • Good to know–thanks! I still haven’t gotten my courage up to try the tops, but maybe now I will.

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