The Nantes carrot was first described in a nineteenth century French vegetable seed catalog in this way: “Root almost perfectly cylindrical…skin very smooth…flesh of the root entirely red, very sweet and mild in flavor….”
The Nantes carrot takes its name from the city on the Atlantic coast of France where the surrounding countryside is ideal for its cultivation. (“It only attains its full quality in a mellow, deep soil…,” wrote Henri Vilmorin in the 1885 edition of his family’s seed catalog.)
Shortly after its introduction, the Nantes became a kitchen garden favorite and its reputation (and cultivation) rightfully spread far and wide.
Today there are more than a half dozen varieties of carrots that specifically bear the Nantes name, but more generally Nantes has come to embody a quite large (more than 40 members) class of medium-sized cylindrical carrots rounded at both the top and tip. In general, Nantes cultivars are known for being sweeter and tenderer than other carrots.
Carrots can be found in markets year round, but late summer through fall is prime carrot season. Many of the Nantes cultivars are at farm markets now.
Choose. When choosing carrots, look for those whose skins are both firm and smooth. Avoid carrots with cracks or those that are turning soft or have withered. If you buy carrots with their foliage attached, be sure that the leaves are moist and bright green. As a rule, it’s best to remove carrot leaves as soon as you get home because the leaves draw moisture from the roots.
You should find young carrots to be mild and tender to the taste and mature carrots sweet. That’s because carrots store their natural sugars in the outer cell layers closest to the skin. As the carrot matures, more sugar will be stored in the outer layers. (That may mean that you might want to remove the core of older carrots—where there may be little flavor at all.)
Carrots that are green skinned—usually at the top or around the shoulders—have probably been exposed to the sun during growth. The taste can be bitter.
Flavor partners. Carrots can be eaten raw and cooked in just about every way. If you are trying to match carrots up with other foods, here are some foods whose flavors have an affinity for carrots: beef, celery, chicken, chives, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, curry, dill, dried apricots, honey, onion, orange, raisins, rosemary, shallots, tarragon, thyme and tomatoes.