Sandy’s Garden ... Brussels Sprouts

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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There are some verbal Scotticisms which somehow make a greater impact on the listener than the conventional English expressions which they replace.

‘Stop it’ lacks the forcefulness of ‘Gonnae no’ dae that?’; and, ‘My brother dislikes Brussels sprouts’ is much less direct than ‘See ma brother? See Brussels sprouts? He hates them!’

As indeed do … apparently …something of the order of one-half of the adult population of the United Kingdom and the vast majority of British children. Yet a supermarket pre-Christmas catalogue of festive goodies could include this statement: “Essential for the dinner table, our sprouts are all British and all Red Tractor Assured. Grown in high quality soil in Lincolnshire which is full of nutrients and minerals, ideal for vegetables.” Well, perhaps the grammatical lapse … the second ‘sentence’ is not, grammatically, a sentence … is down to it having been translated from German, but the meaning is spot on, for Brussels sprouts are both nutritious and healthy. They contain fibre, as well as the daily recommended doses of vitamins C and K, and are low in calories. They are useful in lowering cholesterol and in inhibiting colon cancer. Less happily, sprouts are rich in hydrogen sulphide gas, which is released when they are cooked. Hydrogen sulphide smells like rotten eggs and was the usual ingredient of the stink bombs which people of my generation used to release in the classroom to disrupt a boring lesson. Ah, happy days! However, cooks can dramatically reduce the smell given off by Brussels sprouts during the cooking process by steaming them for less than five minutes and serving them al dente.

Sometimes sold as ‘brussel sprouts’, their correct name is ‘Brussels sprouts’ for they are indeed named after the capital of Belgium. The Romans grew Brussels sprouts two millennia ago; and they have been grown in Belgium for something of the order of 800 years, giving them their name. A true botanist would call them Brassica oleracea - the generic name Brassica being the Latin word for ‘cabbage’ while the specific name oleracea means ‘vegetable-like.’ The Royal Horticultural Society describes them in these words: “Sprouts are the axillary buds (buds in the angle of the leaves) of a biennial cabbage family plant. The buds form up a long stem and culminate in a cabbage-like top. The sprouts form first at the base and then progressively up the stem as the plant grows. By winter the plant should be fairly tall and have usable sprouts up most of the stem.” I could not have put it better.

Sprouts really need a touch of frost to add some sweetness to their taste, although even that hint of sweetness does not make them appetising to some people who, I learn, dislike any taste which stirs an ancient genetic aversion to possibly toxic food. They do well in Britain, for they thrive in countries where the temperature usually ranges between 7°C and 24°C … between 45°F and 75°F in old money … doing best in the middle of that temperature range. This explains why Brussels sprouts are happy in Scotland. They are harvested between September and March; and they are better for being picked after the first frost of the autumn or winter. An added advantage is that sprouts do not deteriorate even during severe or prolonged frosts, which accounts for Scottish supermarkets often having first-class sprouts from East Lothian during the months when many other fresh vegetables are imported.

I have never met anyone who admitted to eating too many sprouts: but, since they contain vitamin K … a blood-clotting factor … people on anticoagulants such as warfarin are advised not to eat them to excess. For the rest of us – well, you either like them or you don’t!