We all know the Russian story about the giant turnip, which grandma and grandpa were able to put out of the ground only with the help of her nephew, their dog, cat and a little mouse at the end. For a turnip to enter into the world of fairytales shows just how much it is worth, because of its big impact in human diet long, long time ago, but also not so long ago.
The word stem r-p, which also consists in the Slovene word for turnips, “repa”, is also present in other Indo-European languages, from Slavic, Germanic, Baltic to the Albanian language groups, and signify a generic name for edible tuber plants. Turnips or “rapa” got its ending for n (napus) in the Roman and Celtic languages, thus spreading its use to the whole region of Europe.
There are many debates and streams of thought about the origin of this plant (one of them being a linguistic analysis as well), but most research places Asia as the birthplace of the homegrown turnip. With the western migrations streams after the period of the shorter ice age, the European land flourished with many plants which are present to these days, from wheat, apples to the mentioned turnip as well.
In comparison to other agricultures, not only the tuber with its skin, even the turnips sprouts and its green leaves are edible and it plays a very important role as fodder ingredient as well. It grows well in colder weather conditions and on flat, not as rich soil, which is also one of the many reasons it is found its place in the Alpine valleys we Slovenians live in. The oldest European remains of the turnip, the same sort we know today, can be traced down to the Neolithic archeological finding in the mountain-seeded Switzerland.
That of course doesn’t mean that turnips can’t grow in flat lands as well. The Friulian Pianura region on the north side of Italy is a place, which is mostly known for growing turnips, and is also known for its special way of conservation. The Friulian word “brovada” is translated a sour turnips, conserved in yeasted grape skins. Such prepared turnips are one of the most important culinary specialties you have to know about this region.
As opposed to the sour grated turnips we known in Slovenia, these “tropinki” or grape skin soured vegetables are soured whole with its skin on. In a wooden barrel they lay layers of turnips and add a layer of grape skin every time on top, and at the end it is filled with warm water and left to ripen on a warm place for at least 1 month, or a bit more.
Such fermented and ripened turnips are then peeled and grated when used and cooked similar to normal grated turnips. Its taste it more distinct as the “normally” soured turnips, because the acetic bacteria used in the process are much more active and largely distributed on the grape skins.
The process of souring the turnips is therefore not only known in Friuli, but it is widely known throughout the Slovenian Kras, Vipavksa dolina, Istra and a part of the Brkini, and is used in every region, where grapevines are cultivated and grown.
In the last half year, when I was researching the traditional way of souring turnips and sauerkraut in Slovenia, I gathered quite a few interesting facts about the process of grape skin souring or souring in “tropinah”.
Adi Moser from Orehovica told me that the turnips, which are used for souring, have to be oblong-shaped, in order for them to be equally soured. Because air in the development of the acetic acid is a key ingredient of the whole process, they use barrels with equally thick edges, so the air enters into the grape skins and activates the bacteria to grow (just think about the process of picking cabbages). Another key component to make the acetic bacteria grow is warmth that is why on the farm Moser, at least in the beginning phases of the fermentation, they heat the barrels on top with special electrical heaters. The turnips sour this way for 5 to 6 weeks and are especially delicious in warm summer days because of their distinct sharp taste, which instantly cools you off.
But because the grape harvest is much faster than the ripening of the turnips, I was interested in how the grape skins are stored till they are used. Mr. Mržek from Hruševice pri kraškem Štanjelu, told me an interesting story about the grape skin conservation technique. I met the gentleman on a warm spring day, when he was harvesting grapes in his vineyard, just outside the village. And as we talked, he told me that the pressed wine grape skins are especially put in a tub and the top was sealed off with fresh and oily loam, which is specific for their village. The grape skins could else dry out; mold would form and destroy it. The moist loam – they gathered it around 3 well known growing places around their village – made the sealed mass airtight, they just have to keep it moist with wet and damp cloths, so it doesn’t dry out.
These kinds of turnips are not particular liked, said Ms. Silvana from the village Barka in Brkini. Children just didn’t like its sharp flavor at all. In Brkini, they soured the turnips just on the western side of the village, because only there the vines grew. Here, they grape skin was not called “tropina”, but “droptine”, they also soured the vegetables in special tubs, which are only meant for turnips. The children there rather eat the normally grained turnips, which were pickled in a small jar in the middle of the kitchen, so they could eat it whenever they could. If the fermentation was “late”, they poured freshly home-made apple vinegar into the mass and made the bacteria react faster.
If today the special and somewhat mysterious “repa tropinka” or in wine grape soured turnips inspired you and you would like to try it for yourself, I suggest you don’t search for those few special people, who continue to make this tradition till today and make a barrel or 2 for themselves to eat, but you can jump right to a bigger grocery store, or Supermerkator if you are in Slovenia, and find the sort “furlansko bravado” in a refrigerated area, nicely soured, pealed, grained and vacuum sealed in a pink bag. The Friulian people are very proud of their specialty and although it is not used on many occasions, still produce and eat it. The local people there insist on making it and spreading its distinct and unique taste even outside of their homeland.
In Slovenia these kinds of movements to spread the in grape skin soured turnips are still not very active. Well, this is not totally true, since Martina Kafol from Volčji grad near Komenda started to spread the notion of its existence 2 years ago, and is teaching more and more people the knowledge of this Slovene Kras tradition. And it may very well happen that you can buy a glass or 2 directly from her.
In this village the members of the group Debela griža have united their strengths, for which the group established itself, with the intention to “preserve, revive nature, culture and ethological inheritance of Volčji grad” and the soured turnips has, thanks to them, been once again added to the list of special culinary dishes of Kras. Martina was in charge to spread the world about the “repa tropinka”, and last year on the 3. Kulinartfest, the fest of cookbooks, organized by her and her fellow villagers, did just that.
For the technical part of souring, Romana Marinšek Logar is in charge, a regular professor of microbiology at the Biotechnical university of Ljubljana, who I also met on my first visit to the Kulinartfest. She invited me to the Volčji grad homestead, which now serves as a cottage, where she spends most of her days. We didn’t talk about the turnips then, but the lady professor served me some high-quality delicious “vratovina” from the locally breed Krško polje pigs, which the faculty kept on the experimental farm in Vremščica. I drank experimentally made Teran wine in “frizante” style, ate the delicious meat and listened to her explaining about the antibacterial role of rosemary’s and other spices, with which Ms. Romana cooked specially assorted dried meat, which she left to ripen into wonderfully tasting masterpieces.
I am sure that she could explain the chemical processes of the grape skin souring for hours and hours and I am also sure that the products the group makes are fantastic. I promise to my readers, that I will visit Mr. Romana very soon again and try to bring some fun facts related to turnip souring. Till then, I greet you from my Ljubljana burrow, where I am gathering my papers about yota and all of its incarnations. One of these chapters is also going to be about the “repa tropinka” for which I hope it will re-appear in many dinner dishes and also fancy restaurants till then.
I am a star-eyed observer; I watch the world unfold before me and I am amazed at everything I see. The human person is always my main focus, even when I chop up carrots or write down my recipes. I like to talk to people that work with their own hands and with the earths soil itself. At home I crouch down before my computer and type down every impression and every note form the last 5 years and I publish this at the very end in a book for everybody to read. Throughout this whole process I always stay a father, sometimes a little grumpy, other times cheerful and high in spirit.