There’s surely more to the magnificent and, by so many, over-looked vegetable, the cauliflower. ‘Cauliflower Ears’ were a graphic boxing term from thelate 19th and early 20th century refering to those poor off ’seconds’ who took the repeated punches and ended up with permanently swollen ears – more like ‘plum tomato ears’ to my reckoning, but maybe the plum tomato was yet to arrive on the boxing circuit?
Earlier in America, Mark Twain was famously credited as dimissing the cauliflower as ‘nothing but a cabbage with a college education’. ‘Nothing but a cabbage’ is a bit rich – another of Nature’s great tasting and healthy vegetables, but Americans have never been big on vegetables outside vegetarian circles where they become obsessed as is their national trait.
Twain’s view aside, the cauliflower is cabbage family and it’s name in most European languages state as much – German ‘blumenkohl’, Spanish ‘coliflor‘, Italian ‘cavolfiore’ and French ‘chou-fleur’ from where the English derive ‘cauliflower‘ as a phonetic naming.
At No 19, we love the cauliflower and those grown in coastal fields across the Isle of Thanet are amongst the best – much as their bigger cousins we eat across the Channel grown in Octeville-sur-Mer – the market garden for Le Havre and Fécamp. The salty sea air does something magical for the flavour of the ‘curd’ – the white centre of this special cabbage.
Let’s dismiss with haste the hideous notion of the near indigestible and one dimensional ’cauliflower cheese’ – that most most British of cauliflower preparations – and move on to soups, salads and sides.
Now’s the time for the Kent cauliflowers – we were standing amongst them, knee high, in the field just a few weeks ago. Spread back the over-sized outer leaves and inside, still surrounded by smaller, paler leaves to get to the ‘curd’ – the cauliflower itself. Roadside sellers and farm shops will often sell these beauties for 70-80p. I’ve even seen 2 and 3 for £1 as the season comes to a close.
Good weather and no frost make for near year round planting and growing of the cauliflower. In rotation, they are also good for the soil as the left over leaves, trimmed in the field by the pickers and ploughed back a few weeks later are rich in nutrients.
Quite how the farmer makes a living from the cauliflower is beyond me – our cousin, himself a retired 3rd generation farmer from Lancashire, had two of his main cash crops as Brussels sprouts for the Christmas trade and cauliflowers – mids and late potatoes, plus feed barley completed the cropping.
He explained, without complaint because that was how it was, that planting seedlings and then harvesting by hand is back-aching work – the wholesale markets demanded the cauliflower carried as little leaf cover as possible. They would be sold not on weight, but on ‘count’ – a simple system that places produce into an identically sized box – the bigger the item, the lower the count (ie less in the box) and vice-versa. Today the wholesale markets have as good as fallen away as supermarkets demand trimming and pre-packing by specialist processors – more money is made here than in the field, even with gang masters and imported cheap seasonal labour.
Selling sprouts on the ’stick’ came like Manna to sprout farmers who were used to getting up before dawn on icy mornings to hand harvest fresh sprouts individually for the traditional wholesale markets that existed in most cities. Now they simply cut the base of the ‘stick’ and there’s the product – Brussels ‘tops’ are another small return and for us cooks, a joy they are too. I will return to this gem of a vegetable that gets such bad press over here – we need the first frosts to bring them to perfection.
Tomatoes on the vine are another spin on this canny marketing – a good tomato variety will stay fresher on the vine – an indifferent variety will do nothing, except we the consumer pay a premium to help the glasshouse owner dispose of his waste – the vines. They’ll be selling us strawberry runners next – just stay away from potato tops. We know what they did for Ireland.
Cauliflowers bring this into focus. The ratio of pure white curd to the whole plant can’t be more than 25-30% – the rest will be ploughed back into the ground. According to our farmer cousin, the cauliflower can be grown near year round if the weather is kind enough – the season gets shorter as we move north where there are less sunshine hours, more rainfall and danger of early frosts – good for sprouts, bad for cauliflower.
Buy your cauliflower as fresh as you can – from the growing farm will always beat the greengrocer - and be certain it’s fresh smelling, firm to the touch, a pure white curd and stiff leafed. Any hint of cream or brown indictates poor handling and excess age. Shelf-stackers are notorious in their brutality towards produce – watch them in your local supmarket and berate them if you see them tipping fruit or vegetables onto the fixture from a height.
A very special cauliflower moment was a workshop back in the original Longhouse Kitchens – we were cooking alongside Neil Nugent, now executive chef with the ‘M’ Kitchen at Morrison’s, but with a CV that’s spanned Roger Vergé in the Moulin de Mougins, The Boulestin and his own well rated restaurant in York, ‘J Baker’s Bistro’. Neil made a French classic – the Crême Dubarry – the silkiest, finest velouté of cauliflower. Some tastes and moments stay with us – Neil’s Crême Dubarry was one such minute or two in time.
Fashion and fads can come and go in food, but classics mostly hold up their heads having survived the centuries.
Crême Dubarry was supposedly so named after the notorious Comtesse Dubarry – no relation to the franchise chain across France selling own-brand épicèrie fine who’s roots date back to 1908.
The soup below is a far more simple affair – steamed and gently forked through cauliflower, flavoured with a crystal clear chicken broth – our youngest eats it by the bowlful, so that chalks up another vegetable he’d not eat any other way.
Why the soup bears her name has many roots – probably none are 100% genuine. The worst I read was that the pure white of the velouté ressembled the white, powdered court wigs of the Trianon – I find that hard to accept given all we know about powdered wigs and their contents.
Another was a reference to Comtesse Dubarry’s very lowe bred origins in Lorraine – the cauliflower was humble, but as the soup it became a dish of high acclaim.
Various recipes exist – the original was probably based on a classic Béchamel, but rice and potato flour (fécule) have been used with equal success. The magic comes from the cauliflower’s flavour and the patience to build the soup slowly.
Cauliflower, broken into florets, very lightly steamed until still al-dente – allowed to cool until warm and then dressed with a lemon and EVOO vinaigrette is a stand-by. Served raw, finely sliced and again dressed with a richer dressing built from walnut or hazelnut oil and vinegar – halved walnuts and Roquefort just take the dish on higher again.
Like broccoli, cauliflower finds surprising acceptance with children – that’s another culinary bonus.
My last thought is always to buy two – even three heads if they are on the small side – nothing will be wasted. Just use it the day you buy it – as in ‘Encore un moment’. I am not sure Louis XV would have accepted Blue Collar Gastronomy – but the Dubarry soup was certainly in the league.
So is this salad of sliced cauliflower and asparagus cut on the bias both steamed for just 2-3 minutes, Charlotte potatoes and boiled eggs, fresh from Loué – the adornment comes from a dressing of a fresh and traditional Pesto, made from DOP Basil sent to me from Genoa this week past by my friend Roberto Panizza of the great Pesto Rossi 1947 company. One day soon we’ll have his fresh Pesto available over here – until then, please don’t attempt making pesto with English grown basil – it doesn’t work and is a waste of expensive ingredients.
I bet you’re now wondering why cauliflowers are quite so cheap and freely available. They are a white delight.