One of the nice things about purple sprouting broccoli is the way that varietal names all tend to reflect the red/purple nature of the crop. We have been slowly munching through Rudolf and Red spear since mid-November and although they are now over, Red Head is in full swing, Mendocino started last week and we picked the first of the Cardinal crop on Sunday. Next up will be Claret followed by some Late Purple in April. Peak production is approaching fast and by early April we could be picking four tonnes a week at our farm in Devon alone.
Each crop will be picked over several times. The first time through is usually quite light, where we take out the primaries (the main head at the top of the plant). This encourages growth in the secondary shoots that grow up the sides of the stalk: these are the more familiar spears that look (and cook) much like asparagus. I personally love PSB – it is one of my seasonal benchmarks – but it’s back breaking work to pick and by late April most pickers have purple spots dancing before their eyes and are praying for the final pick to come.
Every field comes with its own challenges and our main PSB field is no exception. Called ‘Racecourse’, it is slap bang in the middle of a former horse racing track. Races have been held here since 1883 but the course closed in 1960 and is just used for occasional point-to-pointing nowadays; and the next race is on Sunday. The upshot of this is that we won’t be able to pick anything from that field for a couple of days prior to the race as it is readied for action: fences going up, facilities set up for bookies and punters, and so on. So the field gets a couple of days rest and we will have a look at it on Monday to see how much of our crop has been trashed by stampeding horses…
Devotees of PSB (as she’s known to her friends) will be pleased to hear that this darling of winter veg is finally heading in from our fields. The plan was that we’d have the earliest variety, Rudolf, in your boxes by January or February, but the bitterly cold period around December meant the crop simply stopped growing. A fair chunk of the harvest has been lost, but given that the plants were frozen solid or snow-blanketed for the best part of five weeks, it’s remarkable how much has survived. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – or in this case – tastier.
Our planting schedule was designed to provide a relatively steady flow of PSB from January culminating in a ‘flush’ in late March and April. We plant varieties that harvest in consecutive months; Rudolf first, then Red Spear, Redhead, Claret (our highest yielder) followed by Cardinal. However because of the cold delay, much of it looks to be ready all at once in April, so there will be plenty to go around soon enough. Not so much of a failed harvest as a delayed one.
With its relatively recent appearance on supermarket shelves you would be forgiven for thinking that PSB is the result of some adventurous new veggie hybridisation. Yet step back into the ‘70s, a request for broccoli at your local greengrocer would be greeted with a fistful of these little beauties. PSB is the original broccoli, grown across much of the UK every spring. It fell out of favour as supermarkets opted for its Italian relative calabrese (named after Calabria in the south of the country where it originally was grown), which was easily manipulated to produce accommodating, neat-looking hybrids that grow year-round. PSB and her unruly spears were banished to the veg plots of ‘backward’ gardeners. Another example of how the supermarkets’ desire for uniform veg eclipsed the more fundamental qualities of flavour and seasonality.
You can order PSB from our extras range at the moment (there’s not enough coming in to put in all the boxes just yet), but come April when the flush hits, you’ll be able to fill your boots. The whole of the plant is edible, including the leaves. The trick is to get the stalk tender without overdoing the flower buds – try bunching the spears together and boiling standing up in a pan, asparagus-style.
This seasonal favourite is typically harvested from January through to April, when homegrown produce is scarce. It can take some cold weather, and usually, in Devon we would expect 7 or 8 serious frosts every winter. This time, we’ve had 40 heavy frosts already and temperatures have dropped to as low as -16˚C, killing off some varieties of purple sprouting broccoli and stunting the growth of others. Because of that, we’re harvesting later than normal this year. The price won’t be affected as we pay a fixed price to our growers, so the good years cover the bad years. Our box prices are set too.
We usually have a glut of cauliflower around this time of year too, but the frost has killed off a lot of them as well. Their outer leaves can take a lot of cold weather, but not as much as we’ve had this winter. Cauliflower grows best on the mild coastal fringes of the country. We now have some starting to come through, from our SDOP grower Peter Wastenage in Budleigh Salteron on the South Devon coast.