Posted 20th Nov 2012
With the return of the BBC Two series, Great British Food Revival, we're getting behind our heritage veg and talking carrots with chef Michael Caines
Who knew carrots played such an important part in World War II? The year-round British veg has often sat on the sidelines of our plates, yet it was once the vegetable of victory when wartime rationing took hold. As we learnt in the BBC series, WWII fighter pilot John Cunningham put his performance in the skies down to his improved night vision from eating carrots, sparking a nationwide love for the sweet orange veg.
Now Michelin starred chef Michael Caines fights back, championing the revival of these heritage carrots, meeting key historians and producers along the way before showing us how to make carrots the star of our kitchens.
Having always had a love for carrots, Michael was the perfect choice to plead for their survival in the BBC series.
"I have fond childhood memories of carrots - my father growing them and then preparing and cooking them with my mother before sitting down as a family to enjoy them," Michael explains.
"We have a lack of imagination in the UK when it comes to carrots. They are a great subject to pick up on and I am glad to be able to share my passion for carrots with the nation. They have had a bigger impact on British society than most realise."
Carrots have always been a key ingredient in Michael's cooking, though until the series they were mainly used as a garnish.
"Taking part in this series has made me focus on using carrots more as a key ingredient. They are extremely versatile and can be used in both baking or as a savoury dish."
As we see in the series, carrots were once a replacement sweet treat as sugar was rationed during wartime. Carrots have some of the highest sugar content of any vegetable and was the closest thing to a lollipop during the war. Carrots are still used as a sweet supplement today in the popular afternoon treat, carrot cake.
"The most surprising thing I have learnt about carrots is just how important carrots were for providing nutrition and sugar during World War II. Its uses in that era were both flexible and diverse," two great reasons for championing its revival today.
During his episode, Michael seeks out our heritage carrot varieties including the Nairobi carrot, which he watches being harvested at night. "The heritage varieties were quite different. They stand out as an alternative due to their depth of flavour and the fact you can use them with their skins on. Definitely seek them out!"
Since filming the series Michael has continued to champion carrots on his menus, with a new found respect for their importance throughout history. "Carrots have always featured on my menu, usually as carrot cake, but now they feature along with scallops on my menu at Gidleigh Park. The kids also love my carrot soup!"
Not to forget our other British veg, Michael is quick to tell us of his love for root vegetables accompanying a good bit of game. "This time of year I love game! Venison, partridge and pheasant are all in season and I serve them with carrots and other root vegetables such as celeriac and turnips. I love this style of hearty winter cooking."
If you're feeling inspired to bring carrots back into your cooking, then catch up with Michael on BBC iplayer now - episode nine of the BBC Two Great British Food Revival series, or click here for Michael's 'Baked heritage carrots with pan-fried scallops' recipe.
By Natalie Mason