This year, The Hawkwood midwinter feast featured – not Hawkwood potatoes, after this year’s spud failure, but our very own Brussels Sprouts. The bed of Brussels have been rising pine-like under the mesh on the Entrance Field all year mainly for this moment, at the request of Sophie, the then Volunteer Coordinator. Briefly stocking the stall and box scheme has been a merry spin-off. At the outset, I warned her that picking frozen sprouts with freezing hands is one of the most feared tasks in market gardening. The cold snap has turned mild though, and the snap of the buttons being plucked off the stalks is strangely, deeply, satisfying: like the pop of a cork out of a bottle. Jo rustled them into “Sprout Surpise”, and with them fed the fifty, alongside roasted roots, braised red cabbage, nut roast, onion gravy.
Christmas, Yule, Winter Solstice, Midwinter, Crimble, Xmas: call it what you must, think of it what you will: at the very least, it is a time when the population receive tidings of seasonal produce. Not always received graciously, it must be said: the Bird, parsnips, even mince pies, are eagerly anticipated then rapidly despised: but the greatest ambivelence seems to be reserved for “Britain’s most hated vegetable”, the Brussels Sprout.
It is regarded as an essential part of the midwinter feast, yet denigrated as much as the cracker jokes. There are those of us that love sprouts, and those that regard them as horribly windy, soggy, bitter: sprouts divide the nation, like Marmite; and the issue of Europe. I even speculate as to whether, in some folks’ minds, there is a link between Brussels the EU HQ, and its eponymous mini cabbage…
The history of the Brussels Sprout is reassuringly uncertain, but it does seem certain they arose in Belgium, where the earliest records of cultivation exist, though good cultivars have since been developed in Britain. Of course, most of the fayre swerved up at the traditional British Christmas roast will not, ultimately, have originated on this isle: even the stalwart potato, parsnip, swede are, at root, introductions. This has to be cause for celebration: we are a mongrel race, the weird result of wave follows wave of immigrants; refugees; invaders; captures; mixers; adaptors: in plants, as in people.
May your Christmas plates be steeped in tradition, and diversity and may they embody the give-and-take of rich cultural cross-pollination. At its best, that’s what this festival; this country; this Europe is: a place of sharing, a displacing of austerity.
Happy Solstice. And may all your vegetables be cooked right.