After Sophie Charlotte Elisabeth Ursinus married an elderly privy councilor at the age of nineteen, she enjoyed the upper class privileges of Prussia for decades, until her fate changed on the evening of March 5th 1803. While she was hosting a card game at home, police stormed in and arrested her. The trial that followed shook Berlin. No longer did “Lotte” draw attention as a well-dressed widow, a pietist and a poet, but as a serial killer.
A scientist Valentin Rose was an expert witness on the trial. He submitted a report stating he was unable to prove that Madame Ursinus had poisoned any of the victims – Officer Rogay (her lover), her husband, or her aunt. The suspicion, though, was overwhelming. When Benjamin Klein, a servant and a murder attempt survivor, stepped forward to testify that his mistress had served him a bowl of prunes she had first marinated in arsenic, Mrs. Ursinus was convicted and sent to prison. Although pardoned thirty years later, she failed to recover her social standing, and died alone.
After the trial, Valentin Rose became obsessed with developing a method of detecting arsenic in the body. He succeeded in 1806 but, before the breakthrough, he discovered another peculiar – yet less harmful – substance, inulin, while distilling horse-heal extract in his laboratory.
Inulins are dietary fibers that occur naturally in many plants, such as agave, banana, garlic, asparagus, chicory, wheat, onion and sunchoke. Inulin acts as an energy reserve and regulates the cold resistance of these plants.
Enzymes in the human alimentary system, designed to metabolize starch, cannot digest inulin which is a different kind of complex carbohydrate, called fructan or a polymer of fructose molecules. It passes through the upper gastrointestinal track all the way to the colon where the local flora feasts on it. If you have ever thrown such a party in your hindgut, you know it releases a lot of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane – to put it politely. John Goodyer, an English botanist, says it more bluntly in John Gerard’s Historie of Plants from 1621: “which way so ever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men.” Although he referred to sunchokes, the phenomenon applies to all inulin-contained foods.
Native Americans, long before Europeans arrived, cultivated sunchoke tubers and used them as root vegetables. When the early colonists learnt that these underground nubs were edible, they sent seeds back to the Old World. Now Jerusalem artichoke (another name for sunchoke) is a popular crop around the continent. Pleasing to harvest, each root can produce hundreds of tubers a year!
Despite the name, Jerusalem artichoke doesn’t hail from Jerusalem, nor is it a close relative of artichoke (although the two have a similar – sweet and nutty – taste). Italian settlers in America called it girasole, which in Italian means a sunflower. If you twist your tongue, you may hear how “Jerusalem” and “girasol” sound alike. Some other names are French potato, topinambour, lambchoke, sunroot and earth apple. How can such an ugly lump have so many names?
You can substitute sunchokes for potatoes in some recipes. The two have a similar consistency and texture, and become mushy when boiled. However, introduce sunchokes in small doses to your diet, and examine how you react to them. If you are sensitive to fructose, your body may respond in a more hostile way. The zero glycaemic index of sunchokes offers no solace if you have to suffer from gastric pain and flatulence!
The ingredients for the chips:
Little olive oil
Wash the tubers carefully. You don’t have to peel them if they are young, and organically grown. Slice them very thinly, either with a sharp knife or mandolin.
Sprinkle very little olive oil on the slices and rub it in.
Roast the slices in a hot oven (225 C / 400 F) until they are golden on both sides. You may have to turn them during the process.
Add salt and cayenne before serving the chips (with tomato chutney, for example).