27 April 2014

The Forgotten Vegetable

                            Curly kale, decorating the early 16th-century cloister of Cahors cathedral

Try and explain kale to a Frenchman! Chou frisé? ‘I’ve heard of it.’ But he’s never seen it. You can’t find seeds to plant it here, and no restaurant south of the Loire would ever dream of sneaking it into a menu. 

Meanwhile, the humble kale is all the rage among the dissipated yuppies of America’s coastal metropolises. It’s a cultural cycle. In the Depression, their grandmothers badgered their kids into eating it because it was good for you. So their moms wiped the horrible thing out of their memory when good times came back, and now their grown children are rediscovering it and finding it’s not so bad after all, especially when simply sautéed with olive oil and garlic. 

Kale, lowly kale, is the Sinatra of vegetables; it’s been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet—a pawn and a king. If you’re not familiar, it’s really just a cabbage; the word ‘kale’ is the same as the German kohl or the Dutch kool. Scientifically, it’s the acephala sort of cabbage that does not make a head, just floppy leaves. There are countless varieties, all closer to the original wild cabbages, and they have nourished us at least since Roman times. 

In the Middle Ages, kale was king. All over Europe, it was a staple of the peasant diet. Even so, very few cookbooks even mention it. The nobles didn’t care for vegetables. Things that grew close to the ground were for groundlings. Birds and fruits that lived in the clear air were proper fare for noblemen. 

That didn’t stop kale from becoming a surprise star of Gothic sculpture. One of the most charming features of the great French cathedrals is the way they incorporate familiar common plants into the sculptural schemes of the portals, vaulting and capitals. In the early Gothic it was a celebration of spring. Notre-Dame in Paris is carved in plantain, cress and celandine; look closely at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and you’ll see buttercups everywhere. 

In the 15th century, the botanic whim of Gothic art was moving on to other things, including vegetables. The French variety of chou frisé with its elegantly curling leaves fitted the artistic mood perfectly (chicory, thistle and seaweed were popular too). The late Gothic flamboyant style made the old peasant fodder into something elegant and ethereal. There’s lots of it at Rouen cathedral, and closer to us in the Lot, the cloister of Cahors cathedral (see above) is a kale garden in stone. 

Somehow, kale fell out of style. Maybe it was the Reformation and Counterreformation; maybe the importation of such new foods as potatoes and tomatoes from the new world, or more productive round-headed cabbages. Kale held on in Protestant Scotland, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and north Germany. In the Catholic south, it nearly disappeared. In France today it is unknown, and most people use chou frisé to mean Savoy cabbage.  

In Italy, one important variety called cavolo da foraggio is still around, but you won’t Google any recipes for it, though you will find mentions of the plant as ‘food for beasts’. 

We disagree. In fact we planted some in our garden last September, courtesy of the firm Seeds of Italy. It didn’t do anything but grow. By springtime there were leaves like Brobdingnagian dinner plates. They’re tough, but sautée them for about twenty minutes with oil and lots of garlic, and they are pretty tasty. 

Wild sea-kale growing near Plymouth, England (from geograph.org.uk) looks a lot like the Italian cavolo da foraggio we just finished from our garden. 

In Tuscany, at least, they are still very fond of one variety of kale: cavolo nero, or cavolo lacinato, or Tuscan kale. If you’re in a reasonably warm climate, this is a great thing for filling up the spaces that appear in your garden in late summer. For us at least, it soldiered on through the winter and into the following spring and provided a good return with no effort. The only drawback, as with most kale, is that you can cook the central spine of the leaf all day without making an impression. It has to be cut out, which is tedious. 

Tuscans are earnest folk and immune to tedium (spend some time there and you’ll start to notice...). So cavolo nero is a main ingredient in the humble but much-beloved weekday dish called ribollita, so called because it is basically yesterday’s leftovers ‘re-boiled’. We won’t bother with a recipe right now; there are millions of them online, each one different, but the basic principle is always the same: a bunch of kale and a nearly equal amount of verza (Savoy cabbage), chopped onion, tomato, white beans, and breadcrumbs or croutons. And whatever else at the bottom of the fridge you’re trying to get rid of. 

The white beans are a familiar refrain. Along with pork, they’re something that goes naturally well with kale. We’ll try to come up with a good recipe soon. 

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