Diarmuid Gavin: All about sprouts
This hardy Christmas staple will taste better plucked from your own garden
There's no other vegetable that shouts 'Christmas' as much as Brussels sprouts. Whether you love them or hate them, no traditional Christmas banquet is complete without them.
But they are the veg that divides Ireland. When cooked badly - generally through lack of seasoning and leaving them too long bubbling away in hot water - they can turn into an unpleasant mush. And the less said about the gases which they produce when overcooked, the better.
But I have to confess, I like them - occasionally. So much so that, years back, on a festive edition of Come Dine With Me, I put them on the menu. My guests were a famously belligerent group, most of whom were sprout haters. However, I managed to convert them by stir-frying them in a wok and adding some finely chopped nuts for extra crunchiness.
Although Brussels sprouts are part of the larger cabbage family, they are not really a mini cabbage. The head doesn't emerge from the ground, but rather the sprout is an edible bud that grows between stems up the stalk of the plant. But, like cabbage, it is a great winter crop, providing excellent nutrition and loads of vitamins at a time of the year when the veg plot isn't producing much.
It seems that forerunners of the sprouts we eat today were being cultivated in Ancient Rome, but the type we grow now can be traced back to the 13th century, in what is now Belgium. They take between 90 and 180 days to produce an edible crop, from the point of sowing the seed, and each stalk can produce more than 1.5kg of the vegetable. Its harvest season starts in September and continues until March, making Brussels sprouts one of the winter stock vegetables.
If you'd like to cultivate your own for next Christmas, you could start planning now and order some seed for spring sowing. Like any veg plucked fresh from the garden, it will taste better than shop-bought ones, and there are some interesting varieties that are not easily sourced in the shops. You don't have to grow loads, either - one plant can yield as much as 2lb.
Choose a sunny spot for your veg: you want about six hours of sunlight a day. Prepare the site now by digging over, removing weeds and stones, and adding garden compost and/or well-rotted manure.
Sow seeds thinly in later March/early April in seed trays and transplant to their final growing position when they are six inches high.
Plant in firmly, leaving a couple of feet between each plant. This will allow for good air circulation and discourage fungal diseases. Taller varieties need staking as they grow. Keep watered during the growing season and during dry spells.
Like other members of its family, Brussels sprouts are nectar for caterpillars and aphids so be on the lookout for these. If you see a cloud of white flies when you disturb the plant, this is probably cabbage whitefly - inspect the underside of leaves for white insects. While you can use organic pest controls, whiteflies don't usually damage the edible part of the crop so can be tolerated.
Grow companion plants such as marigolds and nasturtiums, which encourage beneficial insects like lacewings and ladybirds - which will in turn hoover up whiteflies and aphids.
Your best bet, though, is to net over your entire crop. This will also protect it from birds. Also practise crop rotation; don't keep growing members of the cabbage family in the one spot.
Harvesting, depending on whether you grow early or late varieties, can begin as early as September and finish in March. Many gardeners like to delay harvest until the first frost, which is believed to intensify flavour.
When they are the size of a walnut, work your way gradually up the stem, picking only a few sprouts at any time from each plant, discarding yellow leaves, as these may harbour disease.
So what are the best varieties? The classic is Trafalgar - a heavy cropper that matures in time for Christmas and has a sweet flavour - while Red Bull is a good purple variety.
But, for something completely different, try Petit Posy Mix, which is a pretty- looking cross between kale and sprout. These little buttons with frilly purple and green leaves taste less 'sprouty' for those who remain unconvinced by this annual culinary tradition.