SPROUTING FOR JOY
Louise Gray tells all about the humble Brussel sprout
What is your favourite part of Christmas dinner? Is it the turkey? The pigs in blankets? The cranberry sauce? The chestnut stuffing? One thing is for sure, I bet it is not the Brussel sprouts… Since our school days, when Brussel sprouts came overboiled to the point of going grey, wafting that familiar sulphurous smell, many of us have dreaded eating our ‘greens’. But as we all become more aware of healthy eating and new ways of cooking, sprouts are making a comeback. In fact as a seasonal, affordable and plentiful crop, it has become a symbol of the kind of vegetables we should be all be eating more of, whatever your income.
Brussel sprouts are part of the brassica family (alongside cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower), that make up a fifth of Scotland’s horticultural crop. The vegetables tend to be grown down the east coast, from Aberdeenshire to East Lothian, where the cool climate allows flavour to build slowly and provides a longer growing season. Brussel sprouts in particular are thought to be sweetest after a frost.
Personally, I think brassicas are rather beautiful, in a sculptural kind of way. Red cabbage looks lovely in a low winter light and broccoli is almost blue in an early morning frost. In a field of sprouts I visit in Fife, the stalks frame the Lomond hills in the background.
The crop is part of this year’s Christmas supply grown by Kettle Produce, one of the UK’s largest growers. Every year they grow 30,000 tonnes of brassicas, including 3,500 tonnes of Brussel sprouts – which is a large
percentage of the total Scottish output of around 14,000 tonnes.
In a field nearby the harvester is hard at work. Workers sit in what looks like a mobile marquee, feeding the cut stalks into a machine to remove the sprouts. In a next-door field workers from Eastern Europe are hand-cutting broccoli. Kettle Produce are Scotland’s largest vegetable processors, with two factories dedicated to making vegetables more ‘convenient’ for the consumer, such as spiralising courgettes and making carrots into spaghetti. So far, sprouts have been kept refreshingly simple, although Marks and Spencer have added raw sprouts to apple and pear juice to make a Christmas ‘sprout smoothie’.
It is only in recent years that demand has grown for brassicas as we have realised the importance of cruciferous vegetables to our diet. Like all veggies, they’re low in calories, fat and salt. They’re also a good source of fibre. Brussel sprouts contain vitamins C, A and B6, as well as the important vitamin K, which promotes strong bones. In fact that sulphurous smell may be what makes them so good for you – as sulphur-rich vegetables have anti-inflammatory properties.
Supermarkets have started stocking new sprout varieties that are sweeter and milder, while celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver have developed recipes that minimise the bitter taste by frying in butter and adding chestnuts, cheese or bacon.
Sprouts have become a new ‘superfood’ – but only for some. Despite growing world class brassicas, many of our own population struggle to access fresh fruits and vegetables. The Scottish Government estimate that 16% of the population live in relative poverty, meaning a reliance on cheaper calories rather than fresh food. It may seem unbelievable in a developed country like Scotland but access to fresh fruit and
vegetables can be limited by price. A 2014 study found that in the UK, people on the lowest incomes spent £1.66 on veg a week compared to £3.83 in the richest tenth of the population.
At the most extreme end, families rely on food banks, where fresh fruit and vegetables are limited. Last year the charity Trussell Trust gave out 170,000 food parcels to Scottish families in need. The food banks mostly rely on processed veg, except where ‘waste’ fresh fruit and vegetables can be redirected to a good cause.
This is where another charity, FareShare, come in. The organisation redistributes food that would otherwise be rejected by the supermarkets and could end up in landfill. The most common reasons are because demand no longer exists, the food is mislabelled or is close to the best before date.
At Christmas, a time of giving, access to food, and fresh fruit and vegetables in particular, is more important than ever. Like many food companies Kettle Produce do their bit by donating surplus vegetables, such as Brussel sprouts, to charity. On average they donate about ten tonnes of fresh produce a month to FareShare. That’s enough for about 250,000 meals per year for people most in need
In central and south east Scotland alone, FareShare redistribute 28 tonnes of food a month, feeding 7,000 people a week. At the depot in Edinburgh, you can find sacks of tatties, crates of carrots, Brussel sprouts and cabbages as well as bread and plenty of tinned food.
It is all high quality food and it is shocking to think it would be wasted if charities like FareShare did not intercept and give the food to those in need. On the day I visited FareShare I found offcuts of shortbread (rejected for not being pretty enough), perfectly ripe bananas (considered overripe because of a few brown spots) and pre-prepared cabbage (that was rejected by the supermarket because a change in the weather meant people were looking for more salad).
Throughout the day vans left to deliver this perfectly edible food to charities including after and before school clubs, food banks, homelessness hostels, veterans’ clubs, community cafés, women’s refuges and food clubs. All of it will be made into delicious meals.
At Newton after school club breakfast cereal is received with joy, at Leith Basics Food Bank fresh vegetables are added to parcels and at St Catharine’s Convent in Tollcross, which feeds up to 200 people a day, Brussel sprouts are received with gratitude. Perhaps we could learn something from all these charities run by volunteers? Perhaps instead of pushing Brussel sprouts to one side on our Christmas dinner plate this year, we should remember how lucky we are.
“Last year Trussell Trust gave out 170,000 food parcels to Scottish families in need
Main image: Louise Gray feeling festive among the sprouts in Fife.Above: A Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. Right: Healthy green smoothies made of organic vegetables.
Above: Brussel sprouts are packed full of nutrients.Bottom: Foodbank Warehouse shelves of food.Bottom right: Sorting the tins.