Crop of the month: Brussels sprout

The moon was full last night so I’m thinking about harvest. You can see other posts in this series by following my ‘harvest’ tag. This month, let’s celebrate the Brussels sprout.

I’m a big fan of the Brussels sprout (Brassica oleracea gemmifera). Eat Seasonably names the sprout as one of December’s best vegetables, saying that it’s a good purchase in the shops from October until February. But not everybody shares my enthusiasm, disliking the sprout’s flavour or finding it indigestible. So today I’ll write about the food before I write about the horticulture.

Brassicas (green vegetables) are varieties of Brassica oleracea. They’re descended from the maritime wild cabbage. Elfyn Jones at the British Mountaineering Council urges us not to eat the wild cabbage because it’s nationally scarce.

Leaving the wild cabbages in peace, we can eat cultivated B. oleracea including the Brussels sprout. Oh yes, some of us like to eat sprouts. But not all of us. We don’t all like sprouts because, only a few years ago, hardly anybody in Britain seems to have known how to bring out the best in them. Also because we don’t all taste sprouts the same way and we don’t all digest them the same way.

The British Growers Association (BGA) at Love Your Greens says that with modern, sweet-tasting varieties and modern, gentle cooking, the sprout has moved on from its old reputation. Jane Fryer at the Mail agrees, saying that sprouts are versatile and delicious. Harry Wallop and Amy Willis at the Telegraph say so too, reporting excellent sprout sales four years ago due to improved culinary skills.

However much the sprout improves, in the field and in the kitchen, some people will never take to it. It makes sense because human beings smell and taste things in different ways. Anna Perman at the Guardian explains how variation in a human gene with the, er, not very catchy name TAS2R38 gives us sprout preferences.

As for digesting sprouts, here’s what dietician Ashley Jacob says about abdominal bloating. As Ms Jacob says, if this happens to you, perhaps this vegetable isn’t for you. My response is that’s great! More sprouts for me! My fellow blogger Miss Kei at Stop Eating Crap understands how wonderful sprouts can be if properly prepared. Here are some more sprout recipes.

Some of us in Britain like sprouts very much. They’re grown commercially in our cool, temperate climate (scroll down for the section on Brussels sprouts). Richard Crane and Rod Vaughan at Reading University tell us about important regions for horticulture in England and Wales (scroll down to page 16 for their map).

BGA says that Britain is less than 60% self-sufficient in vegetables and salads. That proportion is declining as land is built over and as people choose imported vegetables. Even if that weren’t so, not all of our land could be used to grow vegetables. Instead, where land isn’t built over or forested, most of it’s grassland. The English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX) advises livestock farmers about how to manage grassland and how to supplement grass with fodder brassicas. But fodder brassicas don’t include Brussels sprouts. The sprouts are for humans.

BGA tells us about British horticultural heartlands. Sprouts and other brassicas are prominent in eastern parts of our mainland, particularly in Lincolnshire and in the valleys of the Tay and Dee. Growers there, and elsewhere in Britain, can choose to join the co-operative Brassica Growers Association.

We know that for farmers and growers across Britain, harvests in 2012 were very bad because of extreme weather. The Brussels sprout harvest was no exception. Rebecca Smithers at the Guardian warned shoppers to expect sprout shortages. Debbie Waite at the Oxford Mail said that 2012 was a terrible year for sprouts.

But scientists, growers and retailers don’t give up. Ruth Styles at the Mail says that Tesco is now selling giant sprouts. Sprouts with improved digestibility might become available, if Britain embraces genetic modification (GM). As you know I remain undecided about GM crops and frankly, I think that if sprouts make you fart you don’t have to eat them.

Here’s something you might want to do: Adopt a Sprout.

About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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6 Responses to Crop of the month: Brussels sprout

  1. Love sprouts. Especially in garlic and butter sauce. MMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmm.

  2. I’m fond of a sprout – very nice chopped and fried in plenty of olive oil, a bit of chilli and tossed with some aldente fusilli pasta and a sprinkle of parmesan yum yum

    • argylesock says:

      That does sound lovely. I’d leave out the chilli but the other ingredients are irresistable. Do you chop the sprouts raw?

      • Yes raw, though a bit of water added helps them cook quicker – you can’t really over do this as mushy is just as delicious. Actually I just realised I forgot a crucial ingredient – garlic! – and putting a little water stops that burning garlic problem. A good virgin olive oil too and salt too. Let me know how it goes!

  3. Pingback: The extraordinary diversity of Brassica oleracea | Science on the Land

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