You might be surprised to learn that cabbages and the cuisine of these isles go back a long way. Its wild ancestor still grows on the cliffs of southern England, but the work of breeding compact heads from these straggly wildlings was probably done in the Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks were clearly familiar with this vegetable – it is said that as a rejection of luxury, Diogenes, the first Cynic philosopher lived on nothing but cabbage and water. An ascetic reputation has followed cabbage down through the centuries – a vegetable of the poor, eaten out of obligation, or the constituent of depressing sounding health fads. It has certainly rarely attracted praise or been reminisced about fondly as a favourite food memory.
In praise of the cabbage
However, the benefits of cabbage for the UK grower are that they are one of the very few crops that are available in some form all year round. Seeds sown from February can be cropped from late May and these summer cabbage are all crisp, white hearts, ideal for eating raw in slaws. They have a sweetness and peppery bite that is rarely present in shop bought produce. Summer is also a great time for growing the sweetheart types – looser leaved and teardrop shaped they are appearing on many restaurant menus. As the season turns cooler, the red cabbages come to the fore, great in salads or braised with onions, apple and spices for the ultimate roast dinner accompaniment. Kings of winter are the Savoys, their deeply crinkled, dark green leaves are the best for holding onto gravy. Finally, in April and May, spring cabbages provide a welcome early season crop when there is little else in the ground.
In reality though, you would need impeccable timing and patience with all the sowing and planting to get a perfectly formed cabbage every week throughout the year. Although it is advised to plant little and often to get a continuous supply, I find that temperature and rainfall mostly dictates when things decide to ripen. However, there are ways to ensure a mountain of cabbage doesn’t go to waste. The cabbages that form a tight head, such as the classic red and white types are excellent at storage – I have kept whole heads for months through the winter if stored somewhere cold and dark.
In summer, the caterpillars of white butterflies will devour cabbage down to the stems; in winter, the pigeons will peck at any young leaves they can find. Consequently, we cover ours all year round with nets. When cutting the early summer cabbages in June and July, I leave the stumps in the ground and these will produce three or four small cabbages by the end of the summer – worth a try if you don’t need the ground for anything else.
The other way to ensure you have a regular supply of cabbage is to cheat a little – sauerkrauts and kim-chi are two nations ways of fermenting cabbage to aid storage. Alternatively, braised red cabbage lends itself to making giant quantities of at once, which freezes very well.
Pleasingly, there are more recipes now that celebrate cabbage as a dish in its own right. Sweetheart cabbages, sometimes called Hispi cabbage are delicious cut into wedges and charred in a hot frying pan with butter and a dressing. In the summer, I eat huge quantities of a Slovenian Slaw, a recipe shown to me by a Slovenian friend – finely sliced, crisp, white cabbage is dressed with lemon juice, salt, garlic and most importantly, pumpkin seed oil. Sharp, nutty, flavoursome and crunchy!