Broccoli vs PSB; a noble defeat 

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.

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.

Broccoli
Battle of the broccoli: Calabrese and purple sprouting broccoli can be used in the same dishes. 

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.

5 Comments

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  1. Guy, I agree completely re bland uniformity. Look at humans, where have are all the characters gone ??? , even we are becoming uniform and bland,fed on diet of tosh that sustains and creates a creature that is subordinate and lacks character..or flavour in veg speak.
    By the way…what happened to good old Brussel sprouts..they also seem to be somewhat bland and uniform in taste.

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  2. When I took on an allotment about 18 years ago I ‘inherited’ a patch of Purple Sprouting Broccoli. Although it was new to me I thought it was great. I could cut just the amount I wanted for the meal I was preparing.

    I did not then know the history of PSB. I appreciate the article. It seems a lovely dark leafy green vegetable, goes on for a long time, chopped or grated, can be eaten raw, eat the leaves, So versatile, long live PSB.

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  3. I had never tried growing calabrese until this last year, but after seeing pics of a wheelbarrow full of calabrese heads by someone in an FB allotment group, (and what on earth was he going to do with so many, must have a very big freezer) decided to have a go. I did not get the massive heads you see in the supermarket or greengrocers but I have had a consistent supply of spears picked in the same way as PSB and only pulled up the last plant last week (early February).. the PSB will take over very soon but I will be growing calabrese every year from now on (for as long as I am able).

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