In Praise of Winter Carrots
I adore carrots…in every incarnation…from muffins to soup or simply steamed with butter ‘n salt. However, they are such an “everyday” vegetable I realized how little I knew about them. After all these years of food writing, it really was time to figure them out. I hitched a ride on Via Rail down to the Nova Scotia Agricultural College at Truro where I met Dr. Raj Lada — Carrot Expert Extraordinaire!
He explained their heritage. Originally from Afghanistan, he told me, carrots were slim roots that supported the plants which had medicinally important seeds. Fossilized carrot remains have been found in Poland and dated as 35 million years old. Once they moved to Europe in the 12th century, the roots bulked up to the veggie we know and love today. They grew in a rainbow of colours…red, purple, yellow, white, black. In Holland they were gifts for royalty. Today we have a plethora of great varieties but Dr. Lada’s favourite is the red-cored Royal Chantenay (Daucus carota sativus). Mine is the richly coloured Purple Haze.
About a year after I talked to Dr, Lada I set out on another journey, up to Holland Marsh in Ontario where I visited Wolfert Family Farms with their 100,000 square foot carrot processing plant. The carrots are harvested fresh from the field in the late summer and put into cold storage where they become sweeter. Meanwhile the fields rest under their winter blanket of snow.
The Wolferts farm about 1000 acres and when I visited they were buying from roughly 50 other farmers. They also process beets and parsnips and regular-sized carrots and onions and tons of cabbages. And they do a beautiful job of it. The 50 lb bags of carrots are hand-packed. Much of the attention to detail may be because the family is still deeply involved. Inside the plant, the overall impression was water, rushing and swirling and splashing. And steam. The whole place smelled like…well, carrots.
There were sorters, a series of rollers spaced close together and then further and further apart so that the big carrots can’t drop down till near the end. The little ones fall through first. Some are cut and trimmed to make mini-carrots. Speed is very important because on a good day they’re processing tons of carrots. The mini-carrots go through a huge state of the art polisher from New Zealand…then more trimming and washing in very pure water. The water is treated and recycled in their own water treatment plant. The culls, the imperfect carrots, are sold to dog food manufacturers and the trimmings are composted.
On all fronts, carrots are a brilliant vegetable. Whether they’re well mulched and left in the ground to be dug when needed or stored in an old fashioned root cellar or in state of the art cold storage, Canadian carrots just get sweeter through their winter snooze.