In Praise of Brussels Sprouts

They're not just for Christmas!

Brussels sprouts

Brussels was sprouting giant ‘dwarf cabbages’ all over the place this spring ©Tony Le Duc

When Kermit sang “It’s not easy being green,” Brussels sprouts the world over identified with his predicament.

Because sprouts, like frogs, have had a bad rap.

They are the most unappreciated food crop that ever came out of the soil; more scorned than the swede, less tolerated than the turnip, more reviled than the runner bean.

But the leafy green spheres that practically everyone loves to hate are about to come into their own. Because December is The Month of the Brussels Sprout. And, as a vital component of Traditional Christmas Lunch, they’ll be cropping up among ‘the trimmings’ at a British restaurant near you.

Quite why, at Christmas, everyone rushes out to buy these dwarf cabbages by the kilo is a mystery, given their unpopularity throughout the rest of the year.

In 2001, Thomas Cook used them in an advertising campaign promoting Christmas holidays abroad to escape them!

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Of course, anyone who booked for the Spanish Costas would almost certainly have met their nemesis here where, in British bars from Girona to the Campo de Gibraltar, come December 25th, you’ll be very fortunate indeed to escape the festive fumes (phew wiff) of cooked sprouts.

The noxious vapour they give off when boiling in water, and which they continue to exude as cold leftovers in the fridge, is not dissimilar to the smell of methane gas … as are the after-effects of eating them, roughly six hours later …

Long regarded as a joke (in the same way that we all know what beanz meanz), their very presence at the dinner table brings forth amateur comedians. Question: What’s the difference between Brussels sprouts and bogeys? Answer: Little boys don’t eat Brussels sprouts.

No one seems to like them, apart from me and the citizens of Belgium, the first European nation to adopt them from the Middle East and Asia in the 16th century.

The Belgians are so crazy about their bite-sized brassicas they erected ‘an homage’ to them in the centre of Brussels for this year’s Brusselicious food fest – a sculpture of a stork carrying a sprout in a napkin (go figure).

Brussels sprouts

Bruxelles C’est Chou: A sculptural play on words by Jérôme Désert & Sébastien Boucherit, designed for Belgium’s Brusselicious food fest this spring (but please don’t ask me to explain it) ©VISITBRUSSELS/ E.Danhier

The French must quite like them too, or else why would they go around calling their loved ones ‘mon petit chou’ (my little cabbage)?

But there’s a scientific reason why so many of us are turned off by sprouts.

When a sprout is bitten into, it exudes a bitter-tasting sulphurous compound as unpronounceable as it’s inedible (allyl isothiocyanate), otherwise known as mustard oil – the stuff of chemical warfare!

But not all of us (like me and the Belgians) can taste it.

Those who can (75 per cent of us, according to studies) find the flavour everything from mildly unpleasant to pass-the-sick-bag repulsive. (Now you know the kids weren’t putting on an act!)

It’s all the fault of a mutant sprout-hating gene that dates back 48,000 years.

Tyrone Don’t Do Brussels Sprouts (must have a mutant gene)

(Funny or Die, cgaunt)
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Don’t tell Angela Merkel but, in 2009, Spanish researchers went to a great deal of expense and bother to sequence a gene fragment from Neanderthal bones dug up at El Sidrón, in Asturias, just to tell us what we might have guessed for ourselves: that a large percentage of the human race has hated sprouts since the dawn of history. (I wonder if the project was EU-funded?)

“Substances similar to those that give a bitter taste to brassicas are also present in some poisonous plants, so having this variant gene makes evolutionary sense”, the scientists concluded.  Who knows (they don’t) why me and the Belgians lack this genetic advantage?

I was deeply disturbed by these findings. Because, if sprouts emit this compound when they’re eaten, it must be a defence mechanism.

Which means that sprouts have feelings! Which makes us all serial sprout killers!

Brussels sprouts

Cruelty to sprouts © Tony Le Duc

There’s no Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Sprouts but look how trillions have suffered in the hands of incompetent cooks. First they’re peeled within an inch of their lives. Then they’re given the vegetable equivalent of an episiotomy ( the little cross some people cut in the stalks, even though Jamie Oliver says it’s completely unnecessary). Finally, they’re boiled alive and dished up as mushy grey orbs, to be handed around the table like Pass the Parcel meets Russian Roulette: “Not for me,” “I’m allergic”, “I like them but they don’t like me” – until the music stops and the guest left holding the bowl has to take some.

Not only sproutricide. Senseless sproutricide!

Luckily for sprouts, enlightened cooks (and I am one) don’t do any of the above as it has become preferable to eat them al dente. In further mitigation, my victims meet a more palatable end, gently sautéed to death in butter. (Send me your own humane recipe and I’ll publish the best!)

I’ve always subscribed to the view that a sprout is not just for Christmas. I eat them all year round, when I can get them (they’re still a rarity in Spain, outside December), seeking them out in backstreet shops and persuading friends to smuggle them over in their luggage from England. (Imagine my joy when I moved closer to Gibraltar, where Morrisons stocks them all season!) But from Easter to November, I go cold turkey (haha) because if Birds Eye thinks you can freeze sprouts, they’ve got it sooo wrong.

In fact, I’ve toyed with the idea of giving them up this Christmas, as some kind of humanitarian (or should that be vegetarian) gesture.

But after due consideration (of witty lines to close this post) I have decided to give up peas instead.

Go on, ask me why?

Because I want to ‘give peas a chance’!

(Well, I thought it was funny) :-(

sad-unhappy-sick-green-face

SPROUT HALL OF FAME
Sprouts have achieved worldwide notoriety as:
A pop group (Prefab Sprout)
An entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest ( 24 inches in diameter – surely a cabbage?)
A social media sharing tool (Sprout Social)
A character in the Harry Potter novels (Pomona Sprout, Professor of Herbology
An indie rock musician (Tobin Sprout) Imagine growing up with a name like that!

If you’re feeling festive, you might enjoy The Meaning of Christmas

11 Comments

  • Molly December 17, 2012 at 11:14 am Reply

    I am not a fan of Brussel sprouts (even my Dad´s organic ones from our allotment which are wonderfully natural are tough going for me)
    Usually on Christmas Day I have one on my plate and have to cut it up in tiny pieces with carrots & mash. I´m no longer 8 yrs old though.
    This is something we don´t grow out of.

    Great post Belinda. Feliz Navidad.

    • Belinda December 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm Reply

      And now you know you’re not being picky, you really do have a mutant sprout-hating gene! Happy sprout-free Christmas Molly.

  • Maya December 17, 2012 at 11:21 am Reply

    I visited my parents’ home last week and did the ceremonial duty – in front of witnesses I ate 3 sprouts (and was permitted to leave the rest). Now I know it’s Christmas, truly.

    • Belinda December 17, 2012 at 5:03 pm Reply

      You should not have been made to eat ANY Maya, you’re a big girl now! Send your parents my article and make them feel really bad. :-)

  • Maxine Raynor December 17, 2012 at 11:37 am Reply

    I’m proud to say that a brussels sprout has never entered my house, I have been sproutless now for 25 years!!

    However, I can understand that for sprout lovers “sproutism”, as with all other types of “isms”, should be outlawed, companies should be forced to serve them in the canteen on a weekly basis and free pegs for noses handed out to all employees.

    • Belinda December 17, 2012 at 5:05 pm Reply

      I don’t mind ‘sproutism’ Maxine, all the more for me!

  • Phil December 17, 2012 at 3:11 pm Reply

    Shred sprouts then sauté in butter with lardons and shallots. Add seasoning to taste. That will usually win over the sprout haters!

    • Belinda December 17, 2012 at 4:48 pm Reply

      A delicious-sounding disguise, Phil, they’d never guess and, if they asked, I could just say it was Dwarf Cabbage Hash!

  • Sue Sharpe December 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm Reply

    Great article, Belinda! I absolutely adore sprouts! I’ve tried to grow them here but it doesn’t get cold enough. My local fruteria does get some, but they are bland and tasteless. The only problem that I have ever had with them was not being able to get them from the allotment to the kitchen because I ate them raw!

    • Belinda December 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm Reply

      Sorry to hear you live in a sprout-deprived area, Sue, but nice to know there are other fans out there!

  • Kimberely Kitz April 22, 2013 at 5:53 pm Reply

    Breeding research conducted by Syngenta in the Netherlands focusing on compounds known as glucosinolates found in Brussels sprouts has resulted in reduced bitterness and in improved health attributes. These improvements in reducing unpleasant taste through scientific breeding advances have been credited with spurring a “renaissance” and growth in production and consumption of Brussels sprouts hybrids.’

    Have a good week
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