Born again BS

Topsham, Devon, 15 November, 2002 Can you be ‘born again’ if you were never there in the first place? Yet I’ve seen the light and like all that have travelled this road before me, I’ve got to spread the word, share it with you, go tell it from the mountain.
I have — simply to say the words gives me a tingle of untold pleasure, knowing the incredulity with which some of you may greet this — I have discovered the wonder and mystery of…. Brussels sprouts. Oh gorgeous, firm, hard and flavourful balls of goodness. Your perfect miniature form, your myriad tender leaves that peel back to reveal a heart of crunch and flavour: how could I ever have doubted?
My own personal road to Damascus was not, I happily confess, without its moments of despair, and yes, at times downright fear and loathing. How closer than we realise is Love to Hate.
In those former meaningless and misguided days (it seems so long ago yet it was, what, only…this past Tuesday) the very name alone was sufficient to bring forth an immediate and difficult to swallow reaction, an involuntary and overpowering gag. “Sprout”: yes, how that word would make me want to vomit. Any who know me can confirm my impeccable European credentials, yet still the self-proclaimed capital of the EU was as a consequence to me forever deemed to be a place of no or little account, the equivalent of some civic green mushball, a stinking miniature urb of over-cooked cabbage. How I beg you now, in shame and on my hands and knees, Brussels (and all you Bruxellois) to forgive me. I was blind and now I see.
Let me share with you my story. In my defence, I was raised in a sproutless household. In my younger and more formative years, my earliest experiences were no doubt flawed: frozen sprouts with a pale, washed out colour, whose outer leaves disintegrated on the fork and in the mouth into a green and disgusting mush; the stench of overboiled brassica a reminder of the boarding school I never went to; institutionally cooked sprouts in the dining hall of an English university, as much a shock as my first encounter with an English sausage (the latter something I am still in therapy about).
And later, the Christmases with my in-laws where the eating of sprouts was not just seen as a food to take or to leave, but no less than a shibboleth of faith, like the eating of pork pie for Christmas breakfast (an apparent Midlands tradition). The capacity to eat — indeed to enjoy (and I have no doubt that it was, is genuine) — sprouts was considered almost as an expression of English identity or birthright. Once, to the great amusement of all his nieces and nephews, my brother-in-law Michael managed to pouch 34 sprouts at a single mouthful, each added green orb bringing greater and greater cheers and gasps of admiration from the young ones as his cheeks bulged out to marlinbrandoesque dimension, each added green orb making me feel sicker and sicker. Land of Sprouts and Glory…
Is it any wonder, I ask you, that each year as the sprout season would roll around my heart would inevitably sink? Christmas, normally a time of great happiness and joy, grew to be a time to dread. Denial did not work. For months I’d happily delude myself that the Brussels sprout did not exist. But like a string attached to my stomach, when least expected, an unseen tug would bring me tumbling back down to earth, to reality and nausea as I was presented with a plate of stinking sprouts.
The fact is, there is no denying it: I was a hardened and incorrigible sprout hater. I take pride now in freely and unashamedly confessing that I despised sprouts from the very bottom of my heart and soul, and with an irrational fervour far in excess of reason or rationality. More than this, I was contemptuous of those happy fools who walked around this earth in sprout nirvana, believing somehow — and exuding unbearable smugness — that they, and they alone, had found their way to the promised land.
Then, it happened. It was a moment of such delicious ordinariness, a moment rather like walking into a familiar room, bathed in darkness, clicking the wall switch, and seeing all anew, as if for the very first time.
Every Tuesday a van from the country comes to our town house by the river, bringing with it a mystery box of bounty and goodness — organic of course — dug from the earth for our pleasure and sustenance. Orange carrots with green tops, bundled and covered with dirt; onions and green onions knotted together; handfuls of bitter red leaves; rich red and green chard; pointed, round or curly cabbage; ochre squash, knobbled squash, pumpkins; orange swede; bundles of pungent herbs; slender leeks, green and white; red peppers, green peppers, pointed chilli peppers; potatoes of many varieties, turnips, and much more.
The beauty, the magic is, you never quite know what will arrive until it does — life is therefore simplified at a stroke, and dinner transformed into something of a lucky dip. So, quite undexpectedly and serendiptously, we’ve enjoyed organic potatoes boiled in their skins and mashed to a creamy emulsion with steamed chard and olive oil; deep red beetroot, pan roasted with shallots and balsamic vinegar; bitter, stalky leaves stirfried with pancetta, garlic and lots of coarse black pepper; the beauty of new season parsnips, roasted until crisp and caramelised, crunchy and sweet; butternut squash sautéed until soft, mixed with butter, sage and crème fraîche and served over fresh tagliatelle…
In the world of the Riverford box, all is freshness and light; organic is good (or god); we trust; we believe; we cook.
And yet, when this Tuesday’s box arrived on our doorstep imagine my dismay and revulsion as I discovered, lurking beneath the mixed lettuce leaves, a string bag of, yes, the dreaded sprouts. This surely was one organic vegetable too far and I frankly felt angry and betrayed to have received it. As if by force of habit or even instinct, I found myself unconsciously breathing through my nose to try and stifle the involuntary gag that I felt rising in my throat.
And then, and then — that flash, that burst of white light, that moment of epiphany and enlightenment as I dared to ask the eternal question, Why?
Who can say from what deep and hidden fount Faith springs? If life truly is a Brussels sprout, I suddenly realised my moment had come. I will…I can!
Not for me, the simpler choices, the easy life (to boil or not to boil… perchance to steam?). Surely these wondrous and beautiful sprouts deserved more than such crude and roughshod treatment. With trembling hands I took up the first little green vegetal ball in my hand, peeled carefully away any discoloured or worm eaten outer leaves, trimmed off the tough stem, then, with the utmost care and attention, sliced it ever so thinly. The result: a magnificent chiffonade of the most delicate and frilly ribbons of light and dark green.
I then sliced some fat and juicy cloves of garlic, grated a little fresh root ginger, shredded some red chillies. My trusty carbon steel wok was ready to do its job, the daily transubstantiation of the fruits of the lowly earth into something approaching the divine ambrosia of the gods. The oil sizzled, the garlic and ginger released their glorious scents, the chillies an eye-searing, noseburning heat. With gay abandon and seeming insouciance, I threw the chiffonade of frilly light and dark green into the wok, stirred and tossed quickly and deftly. A theatrical dash of soy sauce, a splash of sesame oil, and the final, inspirational coup de grace, a handful of torn spearmint leaves.
The result was truly life changing: crisp and crunchy, delicate yet deeply flavoured, the heat of the chillies, the salt of the soy sauce, the glistening coating of roasted sesame oil, the scent of the mint serving to enhance this symphony of flavours that was, in its essence, the power and the glory of the Brussels sprout.
I spend my days lately mostly in study. Like all true believers, I need, I want, I hunger to know more. I consult the oracle. Delia. She of course has long understood and appreciated the beauty of the sprout, as one would expect. In fact, she is unashamedly out of the closet and proclaims (on the website) that she is ‘devoted’ to them. I earmark a recipe for Brussels sprouts in Riesling with bacon. What, then, of Nigella, whose intellectual yet sensual approach to food has always intrigued and fascinated me. I’m sorely disappointed that in the Domestic Goddesses’ classic tome ‘How to Eat’ sprouts warrant no more than a single disparaging comment, an uninspired seasonal recipe.
Sprouts admittedly have suffered something of an image problem for those unable or unwilling to see beyond their rough and misunderstood exterior. If any food writer could help to give them a makeover, could help to make sprouts appealing and sexy especially for the younger generation, then it would have to be The Naked Chef. ‘Lubbly jubbly,’ I can just imagine Jamie enthusing about ‘the good ol’ sprout’. But a quick glance through one of his volumes reveals not so much as a mention, I turn to Ruth Watson and her evocative and passionately written ‘Really Useful Cookbook’. Again, utterly bereft and not a sprout in sight. Even Christine McFadden and Michel Michaud’s brilliant tome on vegetables, ‘Cool Green Leaves and Hot Red Peppers’ does not so much as mention this misunderstood and oft-neglected brassica.
I burn the midnight oil, investigating further and deeper, though after what seems like days and months in the bowels of the lower stacks, I realise that I need look no further than the GFW sparklist archives. John Whiting is firmly in the camp of the sprout lovers and offers a recipe for sautéed sprouts with thyme and lemon juice. Ruth Watson, it turns out, is not a sprout lover (hence the omission in her book) but comments that a sformato of sprouts with hollandaise sauce is very nice. Josephine Bacon says that she enjoys sprouts with red cabbage and chestnuts. Dehta meanwhile ventures a recipe for braised Brussels sprouts chinese style. And this is only the tip of the iceberg!
So there we are. Now I finally know my mission in life. In a world of doubt and uncertainty, lacking direction and belief, I will become a sprout evangelist. I will seek out the most delicious recipes, regional and recherché. I will champion the cause of sprout growers and spread the good word about the nutritional and gastronomic virtues of this wonder food. I will knock on doors and hand out copies of my soon-to-be-published journal ‘The Sprout Tower’.
And I will of course look forward, like never before, to Christmas lunch at the in-laws.
Hallelujah! Pass the sprouts.

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