Is there any vegetable that divides opinion as much as the humble Brussels sprout?
It certainly divides our household. Sam is on Team Sprout, and always has been. On Christmas Day there is a healthy spoonful of spouts, often homegrown by his mother, proudly on his plate. I have always been firmly on Team Anti-Sprout. Every year I promise that when it comes to Christmas Day I might have one (maybe two sprouts) on my plate nestled among the sweet boiled carrots and the caramelised roast parsnips, but when it comes to the crunch and plates are being served-up, I nearly always chicken-out and decline the spouts, and heap on more carrots instead.
Does anyone really enjoy eating sprouts? I think Sam would argue that he genuinely does, and judging by the number of plants his mother grows each year, I can only assume his family feels this way too. In their defense, Sam’s Mum makes an admittedly good starter of Brussels spouts served with fried black pudding and walnuts, and even I leave my sprout scepticism at the door for this dish. But beyond Christmas, is there really room at the table for this tiny brassica?
Growing up, my memory of sprouts was that they were for Christmas, and only Christmas. When my family and I drove, packed into the old Toyota, every December to collect the bird for the Christmas roast, we always picked up a few large stalks. There were invariably too large to fit in the kitchen, so sat out on the kitchen porch, kept cool by the winter frosts, until they were hauled into the kitchen for the big day. Other than this, I have no memory (save the tragically revolting school Christmas roast dinner where they were obligatory) of ever having sprouts as a ‘normal’ vegetable.
As a Primary teacher, I quickly learned that young children are much more likely to try new vegetables if they had been part of the process of growing them, and this year I have applied this philosophy on myself. Sam’s mother kindly gave us a few young Brussels sprouts seedlings, and I’ve been able to test out my theory: I think it has been successful. For the first time since bring forced school Christmas dinners, I had sprouts on my plate – and I ate them!
I cannot entirely give all the credit to this miracle to home-growing, and I feel I must mention here that the world seems to be changing its attitude to these round green controversies. Over the last few years there seems to have been an explosion of interesting ways to cook your sprouts. No more boil-til-they-mush and hiding them in mouthfuls of roast potato or turkey. They can be deep-fried with goat’s cheese (The Guardian), or added to a spicy chicken tagine (BBC Good Food). Or how about Brussels sprout bhaji (Olive)?
However, the recipe that has really changed my perception of the Brussels sprout is the delicious Spicy Sprout and Mushroom Noodles by Melissa Hemsley from her Eat Green cookbook, which I can gladly feast on throughout the cold winter months. With this recipe, I almost forget I’m eating spouts, and I urge any sprout-haters to give this one a go.
Growing sprouts, even in our small suburban garden, has been surprisingly easy. We planted them in the same bed as our broad beans as the spout stalks were short early in the year so this gave the broad beans the space they needed to grow. Once the broad bean season was over and the plants removed from the bed, the spouts had room to flourish, steadily growing long into the winter. Allegedly, sprouts taste better – by which I interpret sweeter, less bitter – after light frosts, and this winter has so far offered several delicate frosts, enough to sweeten our little harvest.
Pests have been a real problem though: Early in the year small birds seemed to adorn the branches. Naively, I had assumed they were eating insects from the leaves – and thereby solving a pest problem – but I have since learnt that they were more likely nibbling away at our young produce.
The Number One Pest, however, has been the larvae of the Cabbage White (known as cabbage worms), which have devoured a large percentage of the outer leaves, leaving some areas looking almost skeletal. Luckily, our crop doesn’t seem to have been badly affected. I remember, earlier in the year, sitting at the dining table, looking out onto the garden and watching these delicate white butterflies flutter excitedly around the sprout stems. Every now and then I’d go out and chase them off but, needless to say, my efforts were utterly futile…
The Brussels spout is susceptible to a whole host of other pests as well – earwigs, leaf miners and slugs to name a few, not to mention fungal diseases – though ours have so far been spared these.
Between the pleasure of growing Brussels sprout, and the (unanticipated) pleasure of cooking and eating them, I think we can confidently say we will be trying them again next year – though I predict another war of attrition against those Cabbage Whites. Watch this space!