In December 2016, CBeebies – the children’s television station – visited the farms of W&R Logan Ltd in East Lothian.
If the name W&R Logan Ltd doesn’t mean much, perhaps Billy Logan will strike a chord in the memory of the adult supermarket vegetable shopper, for that name appears on the wrappings of Brussels sprouts in several major supermarkets.
Yes, W&R Logan Ltd. specialise in the supply of Brussels sprouts and are very busy indeed during the winter months.
Wikipedia defines the Brussels sprout very succinctly: “The Brussels sprout is a member of the Gemmifera Group of cabbages (Brassica oleracea), grown for its edible buds.” And, while many children and not a few adults might challenge that term ‘edible’ … for a dislike of Brussels sprouts is by no means uncommon … my Italian friend’s 8-year-old daughter Gemma loves them, perhaps because sprouts need a colder climate than is found in Italy and are not grown there, so Gemma has never been told that children don’t like them.
Resembling miniature cabbages, Brussels sprouts have been cultivated for at least two millennia and possibly for much longer. We know that they have been popular vegetables in Belgium since the 13th century; and it is more than possible that their name stems from their popularity in the country whose capital that is. But it is not their origin, their name or their qualities which interest me at this moment. No, I am much more interested in why Brussels sprouts taste so much better in countries where they are subject to frost than they do if they are eaten before they have had that experience in the garden or in the field.
All members of the cabbage family … which includes broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, radishes, kale, chard, and Brussels sprouts as well as cabbages … like to grow in cooler temperatures. Those members of the family which we grow for their leaves suffer from one serious drawback, a drawback which is particularly significant in the case of Brussels sprouts; they do tend to have a rather bitter taste which is not to the liking of many people. This bitterness is naturally lessened if the vegetables are exposed to freezing conditions while they are growing – freezing them after they have been harvested doesn’t work. What happens naturally is that the starches which are present in the leaves are changed into sugars when the plants experience frosty conditions; and this entirely natural transformation counteracts the natural bitterness of the leaves and makes them much sweeter to the taste. Et voila! as the French say; there you have it - sweeter Brussels sprouts, ideal for the winter dinner table.
And the other members of the cabbage family which react to cold conditions and frost by producing sugars are not the only vegetables to exhibit this characteristic. Some root vegetables react in exactly that same way; turnips … which are, of course, members of the cabbage family … are joined by parsnips, carrots and celeriac in becoming sweeter to the taste after being exposed to frost. And the really good news is that frequent freezing and thawing of these vegetables encourages the carbohydrates … biological molecules consisting of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms … to break down into sugars, which are sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates. So a hard winter is good news for lovers of many common vegetables and, in the case of Brussels sprouts, confers one further benefit. Sprouts naturally tighten up as a result of frost and are less likely to become soggy when they are cooked, provided that they are not overcooked, of course. So the next time you are in the supermarket looking for vegetables, take home some East Lothian-grown Brussels sprouts to enjoy!