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Brussels Sprouts    Photo ©Evie Saffron Strands

Brussels Sprouts

Photo ©Evie Saffron Strands

Brussels Sprouts

Brussels Sprouts are the bitterest of leaves in the Cabbage family and quite a strange looking development in the Wild Cabbage family.  Looking like elegant miniature cabbages, their small tight heads cluster around a long stalk.  It’s the plume of large leaves which shelter the rosettes that confirm the cabbage origins of the Brussels Sprout.  First mentioned in 1213, listed in market regulations, and again recorded in the 16th century on Flanders, it  seems safe to assume they were developed around Brussels.  Thomas Jefferson, after spending time in Paris as Minister to France in the 1780s, probably enjoyed them - he planted the first Brussels Sprouts in America in his Monticello garden in 1812.  It seems they took a while to catch on in Britain.  The first known recipe for Brussels Sprouts appeared in Eliza Acton’s book Modern Cookery published in 1845.  Today the Christmas Day feast is unthinkable without Brussels Sprouts on the table.


Sprouts are the bitterest of leaves in the Cabbage family.  Their challenging compounds – much reduced in modern day varieties - are concentrated in the centre of the sprout.  Pungent and bitter notes works as a defence against being eaten by insects and animals but, in this case, these qualities are good for us.  The mantra ‘Eat your Greens’ turns out to be good advice.  The sulfurous qualities of the cabbage family are more pronounced in warm weather and less so in winter, and frost acts as a positive sweetner.  Some cooks advocate cutting them in half before boiling to allow this bitterness to leach out – which does explain why many of us have memories of being served soggy sprouts at the Christmas table.  If you hate Brussels Sprouts, it may well be an aversion to the mushy texture of the overcooked ones you remember rather than their flavour.  

Cooked well, Brussels Sprouts have a sweet, peppery flavour.  Eat them shredded, or pulled apart into individual leaves, then briefly cooked in duck fat or oil and you may change your mind about the bitter quality of Sprouts – a spritz of lime to finish is good.  You could add sliced raw sprouts to fried bacon or pancetta and some cooked chestnuts.  

The cabbage family has an affinity with juniper and caraway.  It’s good to remember that cream, mustard, lemon, blue cheese, soy sauce or Worcestershire Sauce are good ingredients to counter any lingering sulfurousness after cooking.  If you’re still not convinced about Brussels Sprouts, try Kalettes, also known as Flower Sprouts, which are a milder flavoured brassica created by crossing Brussels Sprouts with Kale.

Don’t dismiss ‘Sprout Tops’ either.  For some, this is the best part of the plant.  Treat them as you would cabbage leaves.