Sprouts – the Christmas green that tears the nation!

It’s hard to think of something so small creating such strong opinions. However, these tiny balls of green divide the nation. Love them or hate them, the sprout really does deserve more than just a place once a year, on the Christmas dinner table.

Many people’s hatred of sprouts comes from childhood nightmares of having them boiled for hours – with that delightful, over-cooked sprout smell engulfing the kitchen! But times have changed, and creativity in the kitchen has turned many of the haters into lovers!

So, here’s to sprouts… For life, not just for Christmas.

What Are Brussels Sprouts?!

Brussels sprouts are, more or less, very small, compact cabbages, although they grow quite differently. They come from the Brassica family of plants that includes cabbage, kale, spring greens, broccoli, cauliflower and mustards. They’re named after the Belgian city of Brussels, but they’re usually just called ‘Brussel sprouts’.

Why Are Brussels Sprouts Associated With Christmas?

One clear reason for Brussels sprouts being part of a Christmas dinner is the seasonality of the vegetable, which can grow at quite low temperatures. Brussels sprouts also became popular around the same time that the Victorians were inventing the traditional Christmas feast, and ‘miniature cabbages’ may have been a fun addition to the meal. However, the idea that Brussels sprouts are essential to Christmas festivities probably has a lot to do with marketing in the 20th Century. Today, the UK is one of the largest producers and consumers of Brussels sprouts. In fact, we eat so many that despite producing about as much as the Netherlands we barely export any – and a third of that consumption takes place around Christmas.

The History Of Sprouts

The ancient history of the Brussels sprout is not all too clear. Ancestors of the Brussels sprout may have been grown around the Mediterranean by the Romans, which might then have been developed into the Brussels sprout by northern Europeans in the 5th Century AD or later. The name ‘Brussels sprout’ is thought to have come from the cultivation of the vegetable in the 13th Century around Brussels, the modern capital of Belgium. However, this name only became commonly used at the end of the 18th Century which is when the vegetable itself became popular. The confusion over the name is the main reason it’s hard to know where they came from, but they’re probably a fairly recent addition to the British dinner table.

The first known recipe for Brussels sprouts, written by Eliza Acton in 1845, calls for them to be boiled in salty water and served on buttered bread with melted butter on the side.

How Should Brussels Sprouts Be Stored?

Storing Brussels sprouts is pretty straightforward; Peel off any wilted or yellow leaves, put them whole in a plastic bag and store them in the fridge. They should last up to a week there. Brussels sprouts will become less sweet and stronger in flavour the longer they are stored, so they could be more desirable after a little maturing. If you want to prepare them for cooking and then store them, they should be kept in an air-tight container and not for more than one or two days. Keeping them on the stalk will allow them to stay fresh the longest if space is available. If you want to freeze your Brussels sprouts you should blanche them first to help them stay ‘fresh’. To do this, peel off any wilted or yellow leaves, trim the stalk, wash them and then place them in boiling water for 3-5 minutes depending on how big they are. When they’re finished boiling, put them in ice water to stop them cooking any further and then dry them thoroughly to prevent ice forming on them. When they are dry, put them in a plastic bag, remove as much air as possible before vacuum packing and freezing them.

Seasonality of Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts’ growing season ranges from October to March in the UK, with each variety having a slightly different season. Part of the reason they’re so popular around Christmas is that December falls right in the middle of Brussels sprouts season, and so sprouts are generally at their best during this holiday season.

How To Choose A Good Brussels Sprout

A good Brussels sprout has compact leaves and is firm to the touch. It’s not a problem if the stalk ends are slightly yellow or brown, but if they’re dark in colour they’re probably too old. Another sign of old sprouts is a stronger smell – the freshest sprouts will have little to no odour.

The size of the sprouts can affect flavour. Smaller Brussels sprouts tend to have a sweeter taste. It’s important to try to use Brussels sprouts of roughly the same size to ensure even cooking without having to trim them. Larger sprouts may need to be cut in half prior to cooking, or else you risk an overcooked outside or an undercooked core. Brussels sprouts exposed to frost while growing are sweeter, but unfortunately putting them in the freezer won’t have this effect.

There are a number of different varieties of Brussels sprout. These varieties are usually not too important when it comes to the consumer end because they’re chosen by producers to suit different climates, growing seasons and so on. The newer varieties of Brussels sprouts do generally taste better than older varieties though.

There are also purple varieties of Brussels sprouts! These were created in the 1940s by a Dutchman called C. N. Vreeken by crossing Brussels sprouts with red cabbage, so no genetic modification was involved. Most purple sprouts, sadly, lose their colour with cooking, although steaming them may help retain the purple.

How Do Brussels Sprouts Grow?

It might surprise some people to see that rather than growing on the ground, on a vine or in a bunch, Brussels sprouts actually grow on what looks like a miniature green (or purple!) palm tree. The sprouts grow in a tight cluster on a thick stalk, up to a metre tall, that is topped with large cabbage-like leaves. These leaves can also be eaten and were probably just as popular as the sprouts themselves in earlier times.

They’re well-suited to colder temperatures, tasting best when harvested after a frost. If the weather is too warm, the sprouts will open up and won’t be any good for eating.