We returned in the new year to a mountain of cauliflowers, which have been pushed on by an extraordinarily mild Christmas.
At this time of year, caulis ‘grow from their stumps’: using energy accumulated in the longer days of autumn, allowing them to develop curds even in the lowest light.
At five degrees they stand still; at 12 degrees we have a barn-filling tsunami. Come rain or shine, be it Christmas or New Year, however bad the farmer’s hangover – when caulis are ready, they have to be cut.
Once they start to open and show their curds, they are vulnerable to hail, frost, and vermin; even light can be enough to discolour them and make them unsaleable. An experienced, machete-wielding cutter can tell from five paces which cauliflowers are ready, even when fully covered with leaves.
Mid-winter frosts make cauliflowers too risky for most growers. Even if you are lucky one year, there isn’t enough money in the crop to pay for the years when you aren’t. A sea view and southerly aspect can tip the odds in your favour; the ‘Golden Mile’ looking south over Penzance Bay in West Cornwall, the Isle of Thanet in Kent, and the coast between Plymouth and Dartmouth in South Devon are all warmed by mild air rising off the sea, protecting them from frost in all but the harshest winters, and making caulis a gamble worth taking.
In my younger days, I rented land near the sea to grow them. Now, we leave it to two growers (the Badcocks on the Golden Mile, and the Cases in Devon) whose families have generations of proud experience with the crop.
As I sit on my surfboard waiting for a wave, I can often see them at work in their cauli fields above – and take some satisfaction that Riverford, and you, have helped to keep this tradition alive.
The once humble cauliflower, abused by decades of school cooks, has enjoyed a renaissance; roasted, fried as fritters, riced, made the star of kormas, soups and pastas, and so much more. Plus, of course, there is always cauliflower cheese.
This is a long way of warning you to expect lots of them in the next month. We could decline to take the ones that are above the pre-agreed quantity from our growers – but instead, we will take the bounty, and trust in your culinary skills to make the most of them. You can find lots of inspiration at riverford.co.uk/recipes.