Christmas wouldn’t be the same without at least half a dozen Brussels sprouts jockeying for position among the turkey, potatoes, cranberry sauce and approximately fifteen other foodstuffs crammed onto everyone’s plates. And whether you’re someone whose dishes will still bear those same Brussels sprouts when they’re carried out to be washed, or you gleefully wolf them down with Champagne to lubricate their passage, we think there are a few things you need to know about our most festive vegetables.
To get the full lowdown on the Brussels Sprout, we contacted sprout expert Windy Roodnerf to see if he had answers to the questions most likely to come up at the Christmas dinner table…
Hello Windy. Many thanks for helping us out with this guide. Let’s jump in straight away with the number one question regarding Brussels sprouts: why do they make us fart?
The Brussels sprout (scientific name: Brassica oleracea var. gemmifera) contains a sugar known as ‘raffinose’, that us humans struggle to break down, and a small amount of sulphur. This combination is known to cause gaseous side-effects which can be greatly exaggerated by all the other excesses of a Christmas dinner.
Where does the Brussels reference come from?
The Brussels sprout is a Mediterranean brassica that took a while to catch on in Northern Europe and receive widespread cultivation. No-one quite knows when the first Brussels sprouts were cultivated but sometime during the 16th century in an area near Brussels is widely believed to be the first sprout hot-spot, hence its name.
What makes a good Brussel sprout?
The small green round vegetables we eat are the buds of the biennial sprout plant, growing at the base of the leaves. They’re harvested any time between August and February, with frost-resistant varieties benefitting from a cold snap before picking as this will increase their sweetness. Good Brussels sprouts should be tightly packed bullets – any that show signs of blooming will be past their best and are likely to have the bitter cabbage flavours that put off so many youngsters, turning them away from sprouts for life.
Are they easy to grow?
Brussels Sprouts tend to be one of the more reliable brassicas in the garden. They can be sown as early as February indoors, or outside under fleece in March or April. Despite being associated with winter they prefer a Mediterranean climate, so give them as much shelter and sunshine as you can and try not to overcrowd your sprout patch. They like to be firmed into the soil, so when planting out get your boots busy with a bit of stomping around their base.
Digging good compost into the soil will almost certainly make for bigger, healthier plants and they should be watered during dry summer weeks. There are plenty of garden pests that like to tuck into Brussels sprouts, most notably pigeons, so you may want to consider netting them (although I prefer to take my chances with nature, simply shielding them with home-made plastic water bottle cloches while they’re young before exposing them to potential nibblers).
There are some added benefits of growing your own – you can choose from a far greater variety than you find in the shops (including purple sprouts) and you also get to harvest the ‘cabbage’ part of the plant that sits on top of the stalks.
And finally, do you have any tips on cooking them?
Before cooking remove any loose or yellow outer leaves. If you’ve got good sprouts there won’t be many. You can then boil them whole, slice and fry them or even
roast them in the oven. The trick is not to overcook them – over-boiled Brussels sprouts develop an unpleasant soggy texture and taste. Some people like to put a cross in their base, others just a single score mark, but neither are necessary unless you have massive sprouts to deal with – in which case you’re better off cutting them in half. Five minutes should suffice and you certainly don’t want to exceed 10 minutes of boiling time.
This year I’ll be stirring mine in with some salty butter, chopped chestnuts and a dollop of cranberry sauce, and placing a huge bowl of them pride of place in the middle of the table. Enjoy your Brussels sprouts and just be wary of when that raffinose and sulphur is about to strike…
P.S For those of you wondering, Roodnerf is a variety of sprout. Merry Christmas everyone!