Brussels sprouts are a crop that deserves better - a fabulous ingredient, full of character.
Think about it: what other vegetable compares to a sprout, with those tightly curled leaves? Cooked with a light touch, they offer plenty of crunch and a distinctive, slightly peppery flavour.
Yet demand has been falling. "Currently a lot of people regard sprouts as something you only have at Christmas," muses David, who works alongside his son Steve.
Yet there are strong rays of hope. A recent trend for cooking Brussels tops (the top of the plant - historically discarded) has increased interest.
Purple sprouts and kalettes (see pictures and bullet points below) are new innovations. And buying sprouts on the stalk has become de rigeur for many fashionable foodies.
- 2017 has seen a vogue for sprouts used as festive decorations, including in wreaths. (More info here).
- Recent trends include a demand for Brussels tops and purple varieties of sprout. Kalettes, a cross between kale and Brussels sprouts, are also proving popular (pictured above).
- Brussels sprouts are a brassica - the same plant family as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kales. "That are not the easiest thing to grow ... It’s a lifetimes’ experience and choosing the right varieties," says David.
- Sprouts are the "buttons" of the plant. The stalk is typically discarded. Some farmers also harvest the leafy "tops".
- UK sprout season runs from September to February, with a sharp peak in demand in December. "An average customer who may ask for ten nets of sprouts a day will be asking for 50 in the weeks running up to Christmas," explains David.
- Growers plant different varieties to stagger the harvesting period. David grows nine, including Albarus, Aurelius, Abacus, Batavus and Gigantus. These are typically planted in modules in May.
- Harvesting used to be by hand. But large growers use specialised self-propelled harvesters, such as those pictured below. These strip the buttons from the stalk.
Growing and harvesting
David takes me to out into the fields to meet his harvesting teams. "It's a very tough job," he says. "It’s cold, wet and physically very demanding. [The challenge is] finding good men who are prepared to operate the machinery." David grows 75 acres of the crop, with a production of around 600 tonnes.
Back at the yard of Edward Cook and Sons, the crop is graded and packed in various formats before shipment via truck to wholesalers such as ours at New Covent Garden Market.
Chefs and caterers are getting creative with the ingredient. At Nobu on Old Park Lane, for example, they serve them with a ponzu sauce.
Raw sprouts - typically grated - are popping up in slaws and salads across the capital.
On a more traditional tip, ace Italian restaurant Trullo in Highbury pairs sprouts with gorgonzola fonduta, crispy pancetta and chestnuts.
Chef Rob Creaser at Hammer and Tongs, a South African restaurant, throws them on his charcoal braai: "I was working in a fine dining hotel in South Africa where we deep fried the leaves and put them on the plate with tweezers. With the braai you get a similar flavour - the caramelisation and smokeyness."
Other recipe ideas to come my way include sprouts as a pizza topping or deep fried (try a tempura batter) as a quirky bar snack.
Edward Cook and Sons
Windle Hall Farm