Arum for Food

We leave the world of medicine behind us now; putting away those dusty old herbals. It’s meal time. What can we eat? Arum. Of course. Once we are sure which Arum.

Arum, as we have seen, is a tricky being. When gathering for medicinal use, we can tumble into our basket an eclectic and carefree collection of different varieties, just as the ancient herbalists did. When it comes to eating, we need to be more picky about the Arum we are picking. Let us be sure of the Arum in the wood before it becomes the Arum on our plate.

Of the many Arums found across the world, certain varieties are genuinely important food crops. Tasty, nourishing and easy to gather. Others are mere substitutes, fall backs and ne’do wells. Technically edible but eaten only in times of famine when the choice is (to paraphrase Eddie Izzard) ‘Arum or Death’). Arum has a tendency to fall to extremes like that. One could say that it is part of its deepest nature because the crucial factor in this is largely the root and the larger the root the better.

While all Arum’s have nicely plump, starch rich roots (for very interesting reasons which we will look at later), these vary greatly in size between the different varieties. Take the Egyptian Arum; the ‘Taro’. The king of Arums. Or perhaps nurturing Mother of Arums. The Taro is an anciently important food plant due to its particularly large, starch rich roots. Gerard, in 1597, described it thus: “There is in Aegypt a kind of Arum, which also is to be seene in Africa, and in certain places of lusitania, about rivers and floods, whic differeth from that which groweth in England and other parts of Europe. This plant is large and great, and the leaves thereof are greater than those of the water lillie: the roote is thicke and tuberous, and toward the lower end thicker and broader, and may be eaten.“

Immortalised in 2500 year old carvings at the Temple of Karnak and blessed with over-sized, carbohydrate rich roots just perfect for cooking and sustenance; Taro is undoubtedly the exotic poster child for the edible Arum camp.

Northern Europe however is not quite so blessed. As we travel north from the Taro rich tropical hot spots, the Arum (as we know it) becomes more protective and guarded with its nutritional gifts. Whilst our Arum still has notably starchy roots, these are smaller and difficult to unearth being relatively deep, filled with intensely irritating raphide crystals and readily detach themselves from the main stem during unearthing. This is an Arum which demands its payment of hard work before agreeing to release its reward. The Victorians, never afraid of hard work, decided to test this for themselves.

Arum's Speeding Tubors.

In 1885, Hardwickes Science Journal published an unusually comprehensive article about Arum. This being the time of Victorian investigation into all hitherto accepted claims of folklore and tradition, the author had tried digging up Arum himself: “It is no easy task to procure the corms of A. maculatum. Again and again failure marks the attempt to dig them up. I use a fern trowel, but frequently do not go deep enough, with the result that up come the leaf stalks, leaving the corm deep in the earth. The arum loves, too, a soil somewhat stony, and when the plant is met with in such ground, it is well to leave it alone. Anyone who tries to dig up the corm will soon discover the difficulty”. The British Journal of Ecology reported that an experiment on Arum had found that tubers which were only 2 cm below the surface in May, had sunk to over 7cm underground by October. In fact, so fond is the Arum of burrowing into the ground that tubers which were deliberately replanted at the surface had scurried back down to their previous depths within just a week. Arum clearly knows what it likes and this must qualify it for having the fastest moving roots of any UK plant.

Due to this distinct resistance to being unearthed, there are usually easier and less troublesome ways to source one’s starch and so the northern Arum has never been the major food plant of its more southerly relatives. Nevertheless, it is one of the few native sources of starch rich roots we have in this country and it does have a long history of being eaten, though often in times of hardship and by peasants rather than royalty.

Arum’s culinary qualities are mentioned only as an aside in the majority of the herbals (which, by definition concentrate on the plant’s medicinal qualities) but Theophrastus, in his Enquiry into Plants in 380 BCE describes the leaves being boiled in vinegar and tasting ‘sweet’. He also states how “men invert the roots of cuckoo-pint before it shoots, and so they become larger by being prevented from pushing through to make a shoot. This way, all of the nourishment is drawn into the root and not wasted in the shoots and leaves.” He is most likely to referring to Arum Dracontium and possibly the Egyptian arum here though, rather than the English Lords and Ladies.

Eating Babies?

Dioscorides describes the berries as having a ‘biting taste’ (which seems to be putting it mildly) and that the plant (presumably the roots) can be eaten roasted with honey. The leaves are described as being used as a vegetable and to wrap around cheese to preserve it. These uses were echoed in almost all later herbals and applied to the English Arum, though whether this was ever based on experience is open to doubt. Dioscorides also states that the ‘inhabitants of the Gymnesian Isles (this being Majorca and Minorca) eat it instead of placentae in their banquets. A somewhat shocking assertion until one realised that, contrary to initial impressions, the inhabitants of these islands were not actually given to eating the after-births of newly made babes at parties; the word means simply ‘cakes’ or small delicacy. Which, though less shocking is still significant; island life must have been pretty harsh if the best the residents could muster even for a banquet was a cake made from Arum.

...more in the book....