Che cavolo!

Who doesn’t think back to childhood and remember the wonderful smells of simmering cabbage? And the bitter taste in the mouth when we realised that that was on the menu for dinner…

Cabbage, and the cabbage family in general, doesn’t enjoy the best of reputations, especially among the young. But as we grow older and our tastebuds evolve and our minds open, we learn to appreciate the slightly less obvious aromas. Most of us end up having a cabbage-based dish among our favourites.

We should probably start by defining what we mean by “cabbage”. Brassicacee, or crucifers, make up an extremely large family of vegetables. Bresic is the Celtic word for them, which should give us an idea of how long humankind has been eating them. The word crucifera, meanwhile, refers to the crossed, infolded nature of these plants’ leaves. The most famous crucifer, and by far the most widely eaten, is the cauliflower, but brassicacee includes a truly myriad array of plants. In no particular order, the standouts are: well, the aforementioned cauliflower, which I love in a purée, with a few pistils of saffron to inject some extra colour! And who could object to a bit of fried cauliflower? Then we have broccoli, which people tend to love and hate, but which goes fantastically well with a Boston butt of pork. Savoy cabbage, ideally sautéed in a pan; white cabbage, perfect for bright, vibrant salads. The more Tuscan-than-Tuscan black cabbage, which underpins our ribollita dish. The unique, exotic Brussels sprouts, which are really just the plant buds, plucked from the stalk. And the geometrically-pleasing Romanesco cabbage, which was meant for anchovies, just as turnip greens were meant for sausages. Kohnrabi, red cabbage, Chinese cabbage, Portuguese cabbage, and loads more that I’m forgetting. And the crucifer family also includes members that none of us would think of as cabbages, such as the mustard plant, which of course has those beautiful cross-shaped flowers. And rocket, whose refreshingly bitter taste is nothing if not cabbagey. Radishes too, and even watercress.

All crucifers share some common traits. They are winter plants: they bat off the cold with ease, and so are grown and picked during the winter months. Black cabbage, for example, is better after a few freezes, when the ice has softened it up a bit. They are also really beautiful plants, both in terms of their leaves as well as their fruits (even if fruits isn’t quite the right word). They have some eye-catching colours and veinage; even a gorgeous, hypnotic elegance. Not for nothing are certain crucifers used ornamentally, rather than in the kitchen. They are also – and I say this as a dreadful gardener – really quite easy to grow. Those of us with green thumbs well know that the cabbage family flatters the ego of the amateur grower, because they thrive with very little input, even if they do suffer terribly from the cabbage white, a leaf-decimating if not ineradicable caterpillar. And they reward you with intense satisfaction, besides adding a bit of ravishing beauty to the garden in winter, when it’s not looking at its best. If it weren’t for crucifers, it would be a sad spectacle of just onions, garlic and radicchio.

But even more importantly, cabbages are good for you. Really good for you. Of course, we could say that about any vegetable, but crucifers pack a higher-than-average nutritious punch than their rival greens.

If only, as children, we’d had the knowledge and nous to ask our parents to add a splash of vinegar to the mass of boiled cabbage that they served up. This vinegar would have “bound” itself with the cabbage’s plentiful sulphur, and would have practically eradicated the cabbagey smell. Sulphur has anti-inflammatory and anaesthetic qualities, and helps wounds heal faster. Moreover, crucifers contain very few calories and a bucketload of fibre, which makes them a welcome addition to a diet. Like citrus, they are packed with vitamin C, which reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. They are full of potassium, which keeps the circulation good, and betacarotene, which sharpens the vision (my grandmother always said “cabbages are good for the eyes”). Vitamin K also features heavily in crucifers, and this keeps the neural system nicely lubricated, aiding memory, concentration and lucidity. Some studies have also suggested that cabbages have anti-cancerous properties, especially where the lungs and the colon are concerned, but in this case we can’t make any grand claims, given the sensitivity of the subject. So what’s the catch? Well, they’re not the most digestible of foodstuffs, so they’re not the best thing for a light snack.

So, to wrap it up: beautiful, good and healthy, and in such a large family, it’s impossible not to find at least one that you like. We like them very much indeed: cabbages are frequent guests to our tastebuds!