As a child, from February to April, when the garden was getting sparse, my mother cooked broccoli with everything. Not the green and perfect broccoli of today’s supermarket shelves; she grew the wild and unruly purple sprouting stuff that once was ‘broccoli’.
In the 1960s and 70s such (sprouting) broccoli was a winter crop, with locally bred, open pollinated, frost hardy varieties providing greens through the ‘hungry gap’ from February into spring. The large, uniform, tender heads known as ‘broccoli’ today (really calabrese) were largely unknown outside their native Calabria (the toe of Italy).
Modern calabrese varieties are all hybrids; their genetic uniformity concentrates harvest into a week or two so the whole crop can be taken in two or three passes, massively reducing costs. Purple sprouting varieties, though now increasingly also hybrids, produce their crop over a month or more, requiring up to eight passes to pick the heads as they mature; first the (relatively) large, primary heads, then the smaller secondaries that sprout out further down the plant.
A good picker can harvest 100kg of calabrese broccoli an hour and perhaps 40kg of primary heads of purple sprouting broccoli (PSB) an hour, dropping to 10kg per hour as the secondary spears get smaller, at which point it’s time to let the cows in; typically early April for the latest varieties. My mother would continue picking into May, gathering the matchstick-thick spears in one hand before banding into bunches, which were stood up in an inch of boiling water to ensure the tender buds were not overcooked.
Calabrese broccoli is a summer crop in the UK, harvested from June to October and then imported, mostly from the Murcia region of Spain, from November to May. Since the 1970s the UK calabrese market has grown relentlessly so that we are now easily the biggest importer in the world.
Calabrese costs half as much to grow, is milder and more tender and beloved by many but I lament its displacement of PSB in its winter/spring season as a triumph of bland global uniformity over local character; perhaps I have my mother to blame for the indoctrination.
Grilled, lightly boiled and dipped in bagna cauda or hollandaise, or best of all combined with melted anchovy, chilli and garlic and tossed through linguine; all can be done with calabrese, but none as well.