Brussels sprouts (Brassica oleracea)
Dear Readers, firstly I would like to say thank you to everyone who has left comments on the blog and on Facebook following my mother’s death last week. I have read every single one, and they have given me such comfort. I will be responding to you individually as soon as I have enough mental bandwidth to do justice to your kindness. In the meantime, please be assured that you have made such a difference to me. It’s made me realise that I’m not alone, and that so many of you have already been where I am today, and are alongside me as I walk this path.
Now, some of you may have read Joan Didion’s book ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, in which she describes her emotional journey following the sudden death of her husband. She recounts how she keeps his shoes because ‘he’ll need them when he comes back’. The rational part of her knows that he’s never coming back, but she still can’t throw the shoes away. I had my own version of this when I found Mum’s hairbrush with some of her long, silver hair still in it. I found myself thinking ‘maybe someone could clone Mum from the DNA in her hair’. I know that this is completely ridiculous, but the thought was there. And I have the hairbrush, just in case.
More helpful is what happened to me earlier this morning. I was getting ready to go out for breakfast, and I was telling my husband that I probably wouldn’t do a blog this week because, after all, my mother had just died, and everyone would understand. And then I heard Mum’s voice in my head, as clearly as if she was standing next to me.
‘Don’t you dare not do the blog! Tell them about the Brussels sprouts’.
And so, Dear Readers, here is my take on that most divisive of vegetables the Brussels sprout, courtesy of my mother.
Every Christmas we would have Brussels sprouts with our turkey. I quite liked those sulphurous, squidgy little crucifers, and Dad positively loved them. They were usually a little watery and yellow, and I maintained that this was because Mum insisted on making a cross in the bottom of each one which allowed the cooking water to penetrate right into the heart of the vegetable. I, with my new-fangled modern ways, declared that this wasn’t necessary but somehow, even when I hosted Christmas in my own house, Mum managed to get hold of the Brussels and a sharp knife and the rest was history.
In fact last year, when we had Christmas in Dorset because Mum and Dad were getting over a chest infection and were too sick to travel, the only thing that Mum had the energy to do was to sabotage the Brussels sprouts. By this point I was only too happy to let Mum have her way.
When we eat sprouts, we’re actually eating the buds of the plant. I was too late to get a picture of the Brussels sprouts on the stem that were being sold at Tony’s Continental in East Finchley (the best greengrocer in London in my humble opinion), but here are some so that you get the idea. The plant is, of course, a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) which accounts for those hints of sulphur if the plant is overcooked. It probably originally came from the Mediterranean area, and forerunners of our sprouts may well have been grown in ancient Rome. The plant was known in northern Europe from about the 5th century onwards, and was said to have been grown in Belgium from about the 13th century, hence the name.
Brussels sprouts ready for harvest (Photo One)
Each stalk can bear a harvest of up to 3lbs of sprouts, which can be picked all at the same time, or over a period of weeks. The sprouts are normally ready for harvesting between 90 and 180 days after planting, and are considered sweetest after a frost. They are a traditional winter vegetable in the UK, though I would be willing to bet that a lot of people have them with their Christmas dinner and at no other time. Personally, my winter crucifer of choice would be a fine green cabbage, but that is an absolute no-no in my household.
There are some new varieties of Brussels sprout about, including a rather neat looking red and green flouncy variety that cropped up in Waitrose last year, and red Brussel sprouts have been around for a while . The red ones are a hybrid between red cabbage and the traditional Brussels sprout. Just as I find it hard to keep up with the ever-burgeoning selection of citrus varieties that appear in the greengrocers, so I am overwhelmed with Brassicas. I just get my head around kale when cavalo nero appears, and now there is micro-kale. I am not always sure that too much choice is a good thing.
Red Brussel sprouts (Photo Two)
Most of the Brussels sprouts eaten in the UK will be home grown, with the ones in Tonys coming from Lincolnshire. Sprouts need temperatures no higher than 75 degrees and are also fairly thirsty plants, so the climate in East Anglia is ideal. In the US, the area around Monterey Bay, with its year-round coolish climate and coastal fog, is a big area for growing sprouts, although up to 85% of them will be for the frozen food market. I’ve never eaten frozen sprouts, my great fear being that upon defrosting they would turn into mush, but surely all those American consumers can’t be wrong.
Like all members of the cabbage family, Brussels sprouts are very good for you, packed full of vitamins and minerals and that all important fibre. But if you are on Warfarin or some other blood-thinning drug, beware: sprouts are high in Vitamin K, and a Scottish man was hospitalised following excessive consumption of the vegetable at Christmas. Apparently eating Brussels sprouts means that the Warfarin is cleared through the body more quickly, and therefore does not create the desired anticoagulation effect. And here’s me thinking that the main danger from a Brussels sprout was stepping on a raw one and being catapulted into the Christmas tree.
Of course, the Brussels sprout lends itself to all sorts of other shenanigans not related to its health-giving properties. In August 2014 adventurer Stuart Kettell pushed a Brussels sprout all the way to the top of Mount Snowdon with his nose to raise money for MacMillan Cancer Support. He needed 22 sprouts, it took him four days, and he lost all the skin on his knees. He managed to raise £5000. He had previously practiced by pushing a Brussels sprout around his garden, and purposely chose large sprouts so that they wouldn’t get stuck in any crevices. Well done that man! He had previously raised money by walking every street in Coventry on stilts, and by running in a giant hamster wheel.
Then there is Linus Urbanec from Sweden who holds the world Brussels sprout consumption record, eating 31 sprouts in a minute in November 2008. I assume that they were cooked.
And on the subject of cooking, there are so many recipes for Brussels sprouts that it is difficult to choose just a few. The rumour is that roasting sprouts avoids the sulphur flavour that results from boiling or steaming, and you can also shred them and stir-fry them. One of my favourite dishes is bubble and squeak, which uses left over mashed potato and left over sprouts. But I don’t think they should ever be turned into desserts, or smoothies for that matter. I am reminded of the time that I used swede in a cake recipe, and the whole thing was so revolting that even I couldn’t eat it. For those who are keen on such things, however, there are some Brussels sprout smoothie recipes here. And good luck.
I note that the ever-innovative Heston Blumenthal made a ‘Brussels sprout’ dessert for Waitrose last year, but, quel suprise, it contained no actual sprouts, only green profiteroles filled with lime creme patissiere. Hah.
Heston Blumentha’s ‘Brussels sprout’ dessert (Photo Three)
In ancient folklore, Brussels sprouts were said to have sprung from bitter tears, although it is also said that eating sprouts before a riotous evening will help to ward off drunkenness. It seems to me that a combination of sprouts and beer would be apt to produce both bitter tears and all manner of personal explosions, but there you go. If you can’t let rip at Christmas, then when can you?
And finally, in my journey through the world of sprouts I have found the delightful ‘Sprouts are Cool‘ website. And for your delectation, here is a poem by Suzie S, which sums the whole sprouts dichotomy in a few sentences.
Brussel Sprouts Poetry
O, Brussels sprout sae green and round,
Ye sit upon ma plate,
So innocently mystifying,
The cause o’ much debate.
Some say ye taste like camel droppings,
While others think you great,
I’m sure your sitting there a wonderin’,
Whit’s goin’ tae be your fate.
So let me tell you o’ so quick,
As nervously you wait,
That I find you e’er so loathsome,
So you definitely won’t be ate.
Mum was always so supportive of my writing. For years I would write 1000 words and send it to her, and she would read it, and then read it out loud to my Dad (who often fell asleep but there you go). She would foist my magazine articles onto anyone who stood still long enough, whether they wanted to read them or not. She always believed that I was meant to be a writer, and would chide me if I stopped producing for any reason. And here she is, still doing it although she’s no longer here. She wanted me to be the best version of myself that I could possibly be, and so I guess I’d better get back to my notebooks and laptop and get composing. I wouldn’t want to disappoint her, even now.
Photo One by By Emmanuel.revah – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47586931
Photo Two from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/8065212/Red-Brussels-sprouts-to-be-sold-at-supermarkets.html
Photo Three from https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/heston-blumenthal-launches-next-big-11654201