A crisp, thickly crinkled leafy green
Leafy greens have been a staple of the winter English diet since time immemorial. But recently, one in particular has been having a moment in the spotlight: kale. Glossy magazines and shiny celebrities alike have been singing kale’s praises, hailing it for its supposedly superior nutritional value and adding it to everything from cakes to smoothies.
All the furore has overshadowed many of the lesser-known species of seasonal brassica, such as the rather fancily-named cavolo nero—which, according to Borough’s greengrocers, is very much underrated.
“Kale is very popular at the moment, but in my opinion cavolo nero is so much nicer!” says confirmed fan Charlie at Turnips. “Kale and cavolo nero have similar properties, they are part of the same family, but cavolo nero is a lot more flavoursome and just as good for you,” he enthuses.
Translated as ‘black cabbage’, its roots lie in Tuscany, Italy, where it is believed to have been cultivated since around 600BC. Nowadays, however, this beautiful brassica is springing up in veg patches across Europe.
At Paul Wheeler Fresh Supplies, you’ll find an abundance of English-grown cavolo nero fresh from Paul’s suppliers in Preston. “Though it’s technically a cabbage, it doesn’t have the ‘knot’ that ordinary cabbage has,” Paul explains.
“It has long stems and deep green leaves with a very strong, iron-y flavour. It’s definitely my favourite of the brassicas we have in at the moment—perfect with things like game at this time of year.”
Thickly crinkled leaves
Cavolo nero’s crisp, thickly crinkled leaves are full of water—“similar to savoy cabbage,” says Charlie—so they taste “lovely and fresh”. They’re also incredibly robust and can sustain cooking techniques that would wilt weaker-willed counterparts. “It’s an extremely versatile vegetable,” Charlie continues. “You can parboil it, steam or saute it. It won’t become soggy or chewy.”
While English brassicas are at their best right now, Turnips will continue to stock cavolo nero from further afield for months to come. There are some top quality Italian leaves on the stall right now. “The premium stuff comes from southern Italy,” Charlie explains. “It’s very similar to the English variety, but it has finer leaves and a slightly more delicate flavour.”
In Italy, cavolo nero is commonly used to make a soup called ribollita, which consists of beans, bread, and lots of the green stuff. “It’s very Tuscan. Cavolo nero is used a great deal in the northern regions of Italy,” explains Italian chef Ursula Ferrigno.
A tremendous vegetable
“I absolutely love to use cavolo nero when it’s available. It really is a tremendous vegetable and massively rich in antioxidants. I love its taste, its shape, its beautiful dark green colour—I love it so much I even had some in my wedding bouquet!”
When boiling the vegetable, Ursula suggests adding in some freshly torn bay leaves. “It will give it the most wonderful smell and lend the cavolo nero a little extra flavour.” Ursula’s favourite way to cook it, however, is chop the leaves up small, then toss them in a pan with garlic, chilli, and some good extra virgin olive oil. “It’s heaven. I could eat it by the panful.”