Photo: StockFood / Firmston, Victoria
Brussels sprouts have a mysterious and puzzling history. Some writers suggest they were eaten in classical times, but according to the English food writer Jane Grigson, they are first mentioned in the city of Brussels’s market regulations in 1213. This would suggest they were being grown in the Low Countries at that time. However, not until two centuries later do they appear again, this time on the menus of Burgundian wedding feasts held at the court of Lille. At that time the powerful dukes of Burgundy controlled northern France and most of the Low Countries. After this appearance on the royal table, brussels sprouts vanish again; it seems they were never a popular vegetable, or perhaps they remained a very local specialty.
In the late eighteenth century they resurface, this time in gardening books rather than cookbooks. “Brussels sprouts are winter greens growing much like boorcole” is how they are described in Charles Marshall’s Plain and Easy Introduction to Gardening (1796). This shows that it was the leafy green tops of the plant that were popular, not the small buds attached to the thick stem. Thomas Jefferson is often credited with bringing brussels sprouts to America. While he did plant them in his garden at Monticello in 1812, it is debatable whether this was their first appearance in the New World. They may well have arrived earlier with the French settlers to Louisiana, some of whom came from northern France.
However, it was their popularity as a garden plant that returned them to our tables, at least in England. By the mid-nineteenth century Elizabeth Acton, in her Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845), was explaining how to cook them Belgian style, boiled and smothered in butter. As a young woman, Elizabeth had spent time in France, where she had no doubt eaten them. A few years later in 1849, French chef Alexis Soyer included a recipe in his book Modern Housewife. In Victorian England, French chefs were very influential—not perhaps achieving the celebrity status of chefs today, but people took notice of their recipes. Brussels sprouts caught on in England, and if you ask any English person which vegetable to serve with the Christmas turkey you will get the same response: brussels sprouts—though unfortunately they are usually boiled. With their popularity cemented in England, brussels sprouts invaded the colonies—and my Australian childhood, much to my dismay.
But why are they called brussels sprouts and not cabbage sprouts or little cabbages? Before fast, reliable transportation took vegetables around the world, most were grown close to towns to guarantee supplies. As a result, vegetables often bore the names of these places, like “Argenteuil asparagus,” “Hamburg parsley,” and “choux de Bruxelles” or “brussels cabbage”; which goes halfway to explaining their name.
Excerpted from Bitter: A Taste of the World Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes by Jennifer McLagan (Ten Speed), 2014.