Parsnips are a staple of a traditional Christmas dinner. Asda Grower Richard Clarke writes about how the Devon climate gives his parsnips a distinctive colour and flavour – and how they make it from his farm to our stores in time for the big day.
The soil of the Saunton Sands in North Devon is key to why our parsnips are the best! The area where we grow ours is a block of soil that's reclaimed from the sea and it's absolutely unique to the area, combining high PH levels and a high water level.
The coastal area tends to have higher levels of rainfall too and when all combined this means the roots don’t dry out as fast compared to elsewhere in the UK. This makes it ideal for growing this type of root vegetable and gives the parsnips their distinct bright white colour that you don’t get with those grown elsewhere.
As well as the rainfall, the frost helps us too – a frost makes a parsnip sweeter. So unlike many other instances for growers of produce we actually hope we get some mild frosts, as that can help make them taste even nicer – and anything harvested from November onwards makes for a sweeter parsnip as it's fairly common to experience a frost around here.
They're picked in the early morning from around 5am onwards and packed for same day delivery, via the depot at Bristol, to stores. We've developed a special harvesting tool, which has been fitted with special tracks so that it can operate in all local weather conditions. At this time of year we work daily from sunrise to harvest parsnips across 40 acres of land, get them into the pack-house and then dispatched to Asda all in the same morning so that stores have the freshest possible parsnips.
We developed it ourselves because we need to be careful to avoid both erosion and soil compaction. Our tool can take the soil off and ensures no agitation of the crop – parsnips bruise easily you see, so this ensures a gentle touch to keep them safe.
We've also worked with Environment Agency and Natural England on this equipment and they are happy because we apply a ‘light touch’ approach and ensure there is no mess and less damage to soil compared to traditional techniques that involve using machinery.
The key to high quality parsnips is that they're picked as fresh as possible. We harvest and get ours into storage at a good stable temperate as soon as possible. This ensures a longer shelf life and better flavour.
The business was founded by my grandfather Frank Clarke and we've been supplying Asda since 1978. We now supply Asda with 12 different lines in total. There are no other commercial growers of parsnips locally and it’s actually a relatively unknown and well-kept secret that we grow them here – most bought in the UK travel down from Scotland or parts of the East of England.
I grew up with the business and it’s still a local family business supporting the local economy, as well as ensuring local people can enjoy locally-grown produce with a lower carbon footprint. We're still very hands on, too – including my mum, dad, brother and sister.
It’s a unique part of the world and although it can be hard work, sometimes I just need to look out at the harvest operation and the truly stunning sunrises make the early start worthwhile!
Parsnips contain a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, including dietary fibre, potassium, vitamin C and Folate, so I love to eat them. They're a versatile vegetable – they can accompany roasts or form great stews or soups. Of course I'll be having some on Christmas Day – my favourite way is to have them roasted until they're crisp with honey on top. It's easy to do but brilliantly tasty!
Parsnip recipes: The Asda Good Living website is full of recipe ideas and inspiration for how to use parsnips. Take a look here.