When you overcook Brussels sprouts they release sulphur compounds that have similar characteristics on the nose to overcooked gym socks in a sports bag. In terms of palatability, this doesn't rate highly. Unfortunately for the Brussels sprout, improper cooking has meant that the flavour of the vegetable is now often mistaken for a dirty sock. It's a bad rap that has lasted a lifetime. Enough is enough.
For me, though, a properly cooked Brussels sprout is one of the most perfect vegetables, the very best of the brassica family in a textured, bite-sized parcel. I think of them as mini hearts of cabbage, and they love butter and garlic - another two of my favourite things.
Growing Brussels sprouts at home is a test of your gardening aptitude, but patience and persistence are rewarded. Seeing the sprouts spiral around the stem of the plant is a real pleasure and one of the garden's best shows.
Planting from seed requires care. As with others in the brassica family, it's advisable to propagate seedlings in a tray and then transplant them once you've ticked two boxes: first, the plant must be at least three to four weeks old; and second, the climate has sufficiently cooled down.
Once planted, keep your seeds well watered; a couple of sharp bursts each day is best. The soil must be damp, not wet. This is when a minigreenhouse is recommended because it reduces evaporation, lessening the watering frequency.
Young seedlings won't cope well with extreme fluctuations in temperature, so baking the trays out in the hot sun is not advisable. We have our trays out in the cool of the night, and during the days find a space for them that traps the morning, rather than afternoon, sun. And keep them covered; they're a prized meal for possums and rodents.
When it's time to plant, prepare the soil with plenty of compost and well-rotted manure. If there's a spot in the patch where beans grew previously, that's ideal - they will have fixed the soil with nitrogen and Brussels sprouts have a high demand for this element. If you're growing Brussels sprouts in pots, use a good organic potting mix.
Plant seedlings 60 centimetres apart or in pots that are 20 to 30 centimetres wide with a similar depth. Keep the seedlings well hydrated as they adjust, watering daily if the weather doesn't help.
After a few weeks, and as winter approaches, the air temperature cools down and so will the soil. Now is the time to mulch. Using a mulch high in nitrogen, such as pea straw, will alleviate the need for a mid-season feed. Layer it on two to four centimetres thick, and give it a good drink every second day.
Keep an eye on the plants for signs of pest activity. Along with possums and rodents, the
cabbage white butterfly favours Brussels sprouts as a breeding ground. Securing fine netting over the plants is effective in protecting them, even if it makes tending to them a bit clumsy.
After two months of in-ground growth, the plants will be on the verge of showing productivity. As the stem lengthens and thickens, small nodes appear around it (which shouldn't be mistaken for caterpillars) - this is the start of their show.
A few weeks later, the stem will be covered in sprouts. Harvesting encourages more production and since those left on the plant overcook and flake up, not to mention suffer the inevitable caterpillar attack, it's best to pick sprouts young.
Finally, there comes the most important moment in a sprout's life: arrival in the kitchen. Get everything ready - the hot pan, the butter, the garlic - it's time to do them the justice they deserve.
TIP OF THE MONTH: COMBATING SNAILS
A new season presents new challenges, and when the weather cools down - and dampens up - the snails come out. Given the molluscs' preferred habitat, a wet garden bed is an open invitation to set up home and feast on our vegetables. While this is inevitable come the cool season, there is a strategy to combat snails and slugs.
Copper tape is an organic method for controlling pests in your patch. The tape is used to form a barrier between the mollusc and your plants, applied around the rims of pots, or even your raised garden bed. Upon contact with the copper the pest is poisoned and will die. It's kind of like putting an electric fence around your plants.
Sure it sounds brutal, but this is a game of survival. If we don't grow food, we don't eat, so it's us or them. Plus, a lot of time and effort goes into nurturing vegetables to harvest, and some take more than others. Copper tape is just one way of protecting what's yours and telling your snail and slugs friends to escargot away.
Illustration by Tom Bingham
Once your home-grown Brussels sprouts have flourished, test them out with our recipe for slow-roasted lamb shoulder with Brussels sprout slaw, Brussels sprouts with walnut dressing, lemon and percorino, or cider-braised chicken with Brussels sprouts, apple and hazelnuts.