Devon, 15 November, 2002
Can you be ‘born again’ if you were never there in the first
place? Yet I’ve seen the light and like all that have travelled
this road before me, I’ve got to spread the word, share it with
you, go tell it from the mountain.
I have —
simply to say the words gives me a tingle of untold pleasure, knowing
the incredulity with which some of you may greet this — I have
discovered the wonder and mystery of…. Brussels sprouts. Oh gorgeous,
firm, hard and flavourful balls of goodness. Your perfect miniature
form, your myriad tender leaves that peel back to reveal a heart of
crunch and flavour: how could I ever have doubted?
My own personal
road to Damascus was not, I happily confess, without its moments of
despair, and yes, at times downright fear and loathing. How closer than
we realise is Love to Hate.
In those former
meaningless and misguided days (it seems so long ago yet it was, what,
only…this past Tuesday) the very name alone was sufficient to
bring forth an immediate and difficult to swallow reaction, an involuntary
and overpowering gag. “Sprout”: yes, how that word would
make me want to vomit. Any who know me can confirm my impeccable European
credentials, yet still the self-proclaimed capital of the EU was as
a consequence to me forever deemed to be a place of no or little account,
the equivalent of some civic green mushball, a stinking miniature urb
of over-cooked cabbage. How I beg you now, in shame and on my hands
and knees, Brussels (and all you Bruxellois) to forgive me. I was blind
and now I see.
Let me share
with you my story. In my defence, I was raised in a sproutless household.
In my younger and more formative years, my earliest experiences were
no doubt flawed: frozen sprouts with a pale, washed out colour, whose
outer leaves disintegrated on the fork and in the mouth into a green
and disgusting mush; the stench of overboiled brassica a reminder of
the boarding school I never went to; institutionally cooked sprouts
in the dining hall of an English university, as much a shock as my first
encounter with an English sausage (the latter something I am still in
the Christmases with my in-laws where the eating of sprouts was not
just seen as a food to take or to leave, but no less than a shibboleth
of faith, like the eating of pork pie for Christmas breakfast (an apparent
Midlands tradition). The capacity to eat — indeed to enjoy (and
I have no doubt that it was, is genuine) — sprouts was considered
almost as an expression of English identity or birthright. Once, to
the great amusement of all his nieces and nephews, my brother-in-law
Michael managed to pouch 34 sprouts at a single mouthful, each added
green orb bringing greater and greater cheers and gasps of admiration
from the young ones as his cheeks bulged out to marlinbrandoesque dimension,
each added green orb making me feel sicker and sicker. Land of Sprouts
Is it any wonder,
I ask you, that each year as the sprout season would roll around my
heart would inevitably sink? Christmas, normally a time of great happiness
and joy, grew to be a time to dread. Denial did not work. For months
I’d happily delude myself that the Brussels sprout did not exist.
But like a string attached to my stomach, when least expected, an unseen
tug would bring me tumbling back down to earth, to reality and nausea
as I was presented with a plate of stinking sprouts.
The fact is,
there is no denying it: I was a hardened and incorrigible sprout hater.
I take pride now in freely and unashamedly confessing that I despised
sprouts from the very bottom of my heart and soul, and with an irrational
fervour far in excess of reason or rationality. More than this, I was
contemptuous of those happy fools who walked around this earth in sprout
nirvana, believing somehow — and exuding unbearable smugness —
that they, and they alone, had found their way to the promised land.
Then, it happened.
It was a moment of such delicious ordinariness, a moment rather like
walking into a familiar room, bathed in darkness, clicking the wall
switch, and seeing all anew, as if for the very first time.
a van from the country comes to our town house by the river, bringing
with it a mystery box of bounty and goodness — organic of course
— dug from the earth for our pleasure and sustenance. Orange carrots
with green tops, bundled and covered with dirt; onions and green onions
knotted together; handfuls of bitter red leaves; rich red and green
chard; pointed, round or curly cabbage; ochre squash, knobbled squash,
pumpkins; orange swede; bundles of pungent herbs; slender leeks, green
and white; red peppers, green peppers, pointed chilli peppers; potatoes
of many varieties, turnips, and much more.
the magic is, you never quite know what will arrive until it does —
life is therefore simplified at a stroke, and dinner transformed into
something of a lucky dip. So, quite undexpectedly and serendiptously,
we’ve enjoyed organic potatoes boiled in their skins and mashed
to a creamy emulsion with steamed chard and olive oil; deep red beetroot,
pan roasted with shallots and balsamic vinegar; bitter, stalky leaves
stirfried with pancetta, garlic and lots of coarse black pepper; the
beauty of new season parsnips, roasted until crisp and caramelised,
crunchy and sweet; butternut squash sautéed until soft, mixed
with butter, sage and crème fraîche and served over fresh
In the world
of the Riverford box, all is freshness and light; organic is good (or
god); we trust; we believe; we cook.
And yet, when
this Tuesday’s box arrived on our doorstep imagine my dismay and
revulsion as I discovered, lurking beneath the mixed lettuce leaves,
a string bag of, yes, the dreaded sprouts. This surely was one organic
vegetable too far and I frankly felt angry and betrayed to have received
it. As if by force of habit or even instinct, I found myself unconsciously
breathing through my nose to try and stifle the involuntary gag that
I felt rising in my throat.
And then, and
then — that flash, that burst of white light, that moment of epiphany
and enlightenment as I dared to ask the eternal question, Why?
Who can say
from what deep and hidden fount Faith springs? If life truly is a Brussels
sprout, I suddenly realised my moment had come. I will…I can!
Not for me,
the simpler choices, the easy life (to boil or not to boil… perchance
to steam?). Surely these wondrous and beautiful sprouts deserved more
than such crude and roughshod treatment. With trembling hands I took
up the first little green vegetal ball in my hand, peeled carefully
away any discoloured or worm eaten outer leaves, trimmed off the tough
stem, then, with the utmost care and attention, sliced it ever so thinly.
The result: a magnificent chiffonade of the most delicate and frilly
ribbons of light and dark green.
I then sliced
some fat and juicy cloves of garlic, grated a little fresh root ginger,
shredded some red chillies. My trusty carbon steel wok was ready to
do its job, the daily transubstantiation of the fruits of the lowly
earth into something approaching the divine ambrosia of the gods. The
oil sizzled, the garlic and ginger released their glorious scents, the
chillies an eye-searing, noseburning heat. With gay abandon and seeming
insouciance, I threw the chiffonade of frilly light and dark green into
the wok, stirred and tossed quickly and deftly. A theatrical dash of
soy sauce, a splash of sesame oil, and the final, inspirational coup
de grace, a handful of torn spearmint leaves.
was truly life changing: crisp and crunchy, delicate yet deeply flavoured,
the heat of the chillies, the salt of the soy sauce, the glistening
coating of roasted sesame oil, the scent of the mint serving to enhance
this symphony of flavours that was, in its essence, the power and the
glory of the Brussels sprout.
I spend my
days lately mostly in study. Like all true believers, I need, I want,
I hunger to know more. I consult the oracle. Delia. She of course has
long understood and appreciated the beauty of the sprout, as one would
expect. In fact, she is unashamedly out of the closet and proclaims
(on the www.delia.com
website) that she is ‘devoted’ to them. I earmark a recipe
for Brussels sprouts in Riesling with bacon. What, then, of Nigella,
whose intellectual yet sensual approach to food has always intrigued
and fascinated me. I’m sorely disappointed that in the Domestic
Goddesses’ classic tome ‘How to Eat’ sprouts warrant
no more than a single disparaging comment, an uninspired seasonal recipe.
have suffered something of an image problem for those unable or unwilling
to see beyond their rough and misunderstood exterior. If any food writer
could help to give them a makeover, could help to make sprouts appealing
and sexy especially for the younger generation, then it would have to
be The Naked Chef. ‘Lubbly jubbly,’ I can just imagine Jamie
enthusing about ‘the good ol’ sprout’. But a quick
glance through one of his volumes reveals not so much as a mention,
I turn to Ruth Watson and her evocative and passionately written ‘Really
Useful Cookbook’. Again, utterly bereft and not a sprout in sight.
Even Christine McFadden and Michel Michaud’s brilliant tome on
vegetables, ‘Cool Green Leaves and Hot Red Peppers’ does
not so much as mention this misunderstood and oft-neglected brassica.
I burn the
midnight oil, investigating further and deeper, though after what seems
like days and months in the bowels of the lower stacks, I realise that
I need look no further than the GFW sparklist archives. John Whiting
is firmly in the camp of the sprout lovers and offers a recipe for sautéed
sprouts with thyme and lemon juice. Ruth Watson, it turns out, is not
a sprout lover (hence the omission in her book) but comments that a
sformato of sprouts with hollandaise sauce is very nice. Josephine
Bacon says that she enjoys sprouts with red cabbage and chestnuts. Dehta
meanwhile ventures a recipe for braised Brussels sprouts chinese style.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg!
So there we
are. Now I finally know my mission in life. In a world of doubt and
uncertainty, lacking direction and belief, I will become a sprout evangelist.
I will seek out the most delicious recipes, regional and recherché.
I will champion the cause of sprout growers and spread the good word
about the nutritional and gastronomic virtues of this wonder food. I
will knock on doors and hand out copies of my soon-to-be-published journal
‘The Sprout Tower’.
And I will
of course look forward, like never before, to Christmas lunch at the
Pass the sprouts.