The Best British Brassicas
Britain has an ideal climate for most brassicas — the members of the cabbage family. Among them, Brussels sprouts, cabbages and cauliflower all produce a fine winter harvest.
Cabbages, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower all belong to the same species, Brassica oleracea (meaning, not unreasonably, edible cabbage). Wild forms of this species occur on sea cliffs in a few parts of Britain; they are large, perennial, kale-like plants with attractive yellow flowers and a hotter, more bitter flavour than the cultivated forms.
The cultivated brassicas originated several thousand years ago: cabbages in western Europe; broccolis in the Eastern Mediterranean; and various varieties of kale throughout Europe. The extensive trading network of ancient Greek and Roman times resulted in the different forms being brought together; they cross-pollinated, thus generating further varieties.
The Brussels sprout was developed from the cabbage rather later — about 300 years ago — in Belgium. Within the last 150 years it has become a British favourite and we probably grow and eat more than the rest of Europe put together. The two main traditional areas for sprout growing are the
Vale of Evesham and Bedfordshire. The methods of growing remain much as of old although the type of plant grown today has to conform to the standards of supermarkets and freezing companies, rather than the old local standards. The Vale has remained a typically English patchwork of small fields with mixed market gardening. The sprouts are still picked in the field here, but in Bedfordshire the traditional methods have changed : the sprouts are harvested on their stalks, to be stripped by mechanical knives before despatch to the freezing factories.
Two distinct forms of cauliflower — developed from broccoli — came to us in the 16th to 18th centuries. The summer-maturing type was developed in Germany and Denmark and was always referred to as the `cauliflower’. The winter and spring-maturing types were brought here from Italy and retained their ancestral name of ‘broccoli’. As a result, the terms ‘cauliflower’ and `broccoli’ were used for two crops which looked identical. Today, all the white, heading types are referred to as cauliflowers, while the name broccoli is kept for sprouting forms and those with green or purple heads.
The growth of the cauliflower industry in this country was due largely to the Industrial Revolution, when railways made the cities accessible for growers of fresh produce. Cauliflower-growing areas developed near the coast, where winter temperatures are kept higher than usual by the sea, for the cauliflower is the least resilient of all the brassicas and is the most difficult to grow. Coastal Kent, Cornwall, and Hampshire were the growing areas for winter cauliflowers, while the hardier, spring types were developed from the Midlands to Yorkshire.
Several of the old types of winter and spring cauliflowers, and a couple of the traditional growing areas, have now gone. Most caulilowers, especially autumn varieties recently bred in Australia, are now grown on a large scale in Lincolnshire. Changes still take place, the most recent is the reduction until recently of output from south-west Britain. The decline of the railways, the increase in road freight costs, and competition from France, all contributed to a contraction of the Cornish cauliflower industry; though it picked up in the years 1985-8, and is now steady.
Cabbages have probably been grown in Britain since before the 5th century. With their non-heading cousins, the kales, they were valued in medieval times for their medicinal properties. However, in this respect, they probably had no more value than any other green vegetables, except that they were available in the ‘hungry gap’ between midwinter and early spring. Despite being one of the most productive and reliable of vegetables, they have tended to decline in popularity as prosperity has increased.
Cabbages are rather easier to grow than other brassicas and therefore they are not produced in specialist areas. The exception is the loose pointed cabbage sold as ‘spring greens’, which is concentrated in coastal Cornwall, Kent and the Vale of Evesham so it is ready in time to exploit the lucrative early spring market.
The dense-headed Dutch white storage cabbage has recently been introduced to this country. Used in north European countries for sauerkraut and eaten raw in Britain as coleslaw, it was planted by Lincolnshire growers in the 1960s and is the only cabbage that is increasing in popularity. Harvesting of the cannonball-like heads starts in October, and in November or December the grower cuts all the remaining heads, keeping them in a cool barn until as late as April.
Minor cabbage crops
Among the other forms of brassica which are grown in Britain are the broccolis. Green sprouting broccoli (calabrese or broccoli spears) is an important frozen vegetable in America, and is starting to be grown for the same purpose here, usually near the processing factories in Scotland and Humberside. The spring-maturing purple sprouting, white sprouting and Cape broccolis are grown in gardens and allotments rather than commercially, for they tend to be of very variable quality and quickly discolour after harvesting. However, increasing interest in broccoli by growers and supermarkets means that it is likely to become an important vegetable in the next few years.
Kale is unlikely to regain its importance as a food for humans, but it is very often grown purely as a fodder crop for cattle to graze. Although we may have lost one food to cattle, kohl rabi, used as animal fodder in Europe, is becoming popular instead.