Sea kale reaps all kinds of rewards
THERE are many vegetables that are beautiful plants in their own right and sea kale, Crambe maritima, is one of the most charming examples of these. It’s native to our coasts, growing wild just above the tide line on shingle beaches. The crinkly leaves emerge purple, but quickly develop a glaucous waxy coating, which protects the plant from the extreme conditions in which it lives. Its dense bouquets of white cruciferous flowers are also lovely when they open in May, producing a heavenly honey scent.
In the flower garden, this plant can work well at the front of a border, as it has good foliage and fluffy white blooms and, in the spring, we plan to plant some in the gravel along the long border to see how effective they are. However, it’s in the kitchen garden where we’re especially interested in growing sea kale as its young shoots can be considered one finest delicacies of the spring.
It’s quite a difficult ingredient to find and rather expensive, so it more than justifies its space in the garden. The flavour could be compared to salty globe artichoke, with a beautiful aqueous crunchy texture. This makes it contest well with creamy sauces and it will complement delicate fish, such as Dover sole, perfectly. Personally, I like sea kale best just steamed, on its own, and plastered in butter.
The tough leathery leaves are really quite bitter and not nice to eat unless blanched, but when this is done, by removing all sunlight as the plant comes into growth, the beautiful new creamycoloured shoots can produce excellent crops. I’ve heard stories of how, in the old days, the Kent fishermen used to pile sand over plants to force them. I’m told it could give quite gritty results, like badly dressed crab, and, these days, our native flora is best left unmolested.
Over the past few years, we’ve had worthwhile yields by growing some plants under terracotta rhubarb forcers and, because Chef has been so pleased with what we’ve brought him for the kitchen, we’ve decided to increase production.
Because sea kale is a perennial crop, special attention needs to be paid to the soil before planting it, so this winter, we’ll prepare our new ‘seakale bed’ by trenchdigging grit, compost and seaweed fertiliser into the soil. Being a maritime plant, it will thrive in similar conditions to a good asparagus bed. If this work is done in good time, while the weather is dry, the soil should have settled nicely for a spring planting.
It’s an easy plant to propagate from root cuttings taken in autumn. These are best rooted in trays in the cold frame and, by spring, the baby plants should be ready to plant out, but buying in rooted ‘thongs’ from suppliers such as Suttons or Marshalls can be an easier way of starting a crop. These should arrive in the post ready for planting, although I usually prefer to pot them up and push them on under glass first. This will give the plants a good head start and the best possible chance of success after they’re planted out in their bed.
A good mulch is helpful to keep the weeds down and the soil moist. Seaweed is the best stuff to use if you can get hold of it, but we’re going to have to use a fine composted bark.
We don’t have enough terracotta pots to force all of the sea kale from our new bed efficiently, so we plan to use black plastic laid over cloche hoops for the rest of the crop. It’s a technique we’ve also used quite effectively to force white asparagus in the past, to produce a delicate alternative to our preferred green spears. Bear in mind that both of these crops take quite a lot of work to become established and they can tie up the ground for some time.
However, when the garden can produce something truly special, it’s more than worth the effort. It will take a year to establish before our new plants can be forced and two years until they’re giving good yields. To enjoy the best results from a garden, a little patience is always required and this is especially true when producing fine food.
‘The flavour can be compared to salty globe artichoke
Tom Coward is head gardener at Gravetye Manor, West Sussex (www.gravetyemanor.co.uk)
Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch garden
Beautiful in its own right and tasty, too: Crambe maritima grows on beaches, but remains a favourite in the kitchen garden