Love them or hate them, they are the vegetable of the season and so for a brussels sprout farmer, Christmas is even more crazy than for the rest of us says Deirdre Reynolds
As Santa was busy in the North Pole workshop in early December, in Co Meath, brussels sprout farmer Cathal Lenehan was busy checking his own list twice.
One of just four growers left in the land, two weeks ago ‘Sprout Claus’ — as his children have dubbed him — and his team of not-so-little helpers were on course to churn out a staggering 140 tonnes of sprouts by today.
When we met him, the pressure was on to ensure the country’s most divisive vegetable made it from field to fork in time for the traditional Christmas dinner.
“From the start of the month, you don’t sleep with worry,” says Cathal of JCR Lenehan, a family-run farm just outside Navan which supplies Tesco, among other supermarket chains. “You’ve got ten days to harvest two-thirds of your crop. If the weather is against you, it’s a game of Russian roulette. For the first couple of days, when you’re not really under severe pressure, there’s a good auld buzz. Then when the push comes on, there might be a little bit of shouting in the yard all right. Christmas week you’d be harvesting anything from 12m-16m sprouts. Last year, the lightest day we done was 17 hours and the heaviest was 21 — we stopped for three hours. Even when you do go to bed at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, you don’t sleep because you’re so wound up thinking who wants what for tomorrow.”
Related to cabbage and broccoli, the leafy green veg — planted in May — is best plucked and packaged at around 5C, while heavy rain and snow are a real nightmare before Christmas for farmers.
“There’s hundreds of varieties, absolutely hundreds, and they all taste in and around the same,” explains Cathal, who’s been picking sprouts at the Garlow Cross farm — which only mechanised eight years ago — every Christmas since he was 12.
“We have around eight varieties. Some are 120 days from planting to maturity, some are 220, so they’d be the varieties that you’d be pushing out for winter harvest. You wouldn’t rely on just one [variety] because if that failed, your [entire] harvest has failed.”
Although synonymous with the nasty sulphurous smell caused by overcooking, supermarket bosses still expect the polarising green to sell out by Christmas Eve, as usual.
“Despite the love/hate relationship with brussels sprouts, they continue to be a household staple for Christmas dinners,” says Tesco Ireland fresh food buyer Joe Casey.
“This year, Tesco expects to sell nearly 24m brussels sprouts, which would cover the length of the country if they were stretched out in a line from Malin Head to Mizen Head.
“Brussels sprouts are available all year round, but peak season is from autumn until early spring. Best stored in a plastic bag, they can be refrigerated for up to 10 days or frozen for up to one year.”
While happy to sizzle sprouts for family and friends this festive season, TV chef Gary O’Hanlon confesses he can barely stomach the ubiquitous side once voted “America’s most hated vegetable”.
“Without a doubt, brussels sprouts are the Marmite of the vegetable world,” says Gary, head chef at Viewmount House in Longford, which has just been added to Ireland’s Blue Book. “In my 20-plus years working in kitchens, I’ve never known an ingredient to divide opinion more.
“For me, the hatred all started with Mammy’s cooking — getting boiled to within an inch of their lives and the horrid lingering smell they left behind. I reckon I was 15 before I saw a properly cooked, green one.”
Over on ‘Team Sprout’, meanwhile, nutritional therapist Erika Doolan of Nutrition Ireland urges kids and big kids alike to eat their greens this Christmas: “Brussels sprouts are low in calories and packed with nutrition. They’re high in Vitamin K, which helps support bone health, and Vitamin C, which helps support the immune system and keep you looking young.
“With high levels of antioxidants and phytochemicals, sprouts can even help protect against cancer and heart disease.”
According to Cathal, the perfect sprout is 22mm-38mm in size, with no black or yellow leaves. Gary suggests sexing them up on the pan: “Last year, I cooked and blanched the sprouts before sautéing them with smoked bacon, onion, and a little garlic. Then I added a Mornay sauce I had made, brought it to the boil, and poured it all into a casserole dish. Finally I topped it with a herby Parmesan breadcrumb, a good drizzle of truffle oil, and baked it in the oven at 180C until the crumbs were golden and formed a crust.
“It was a big hit. My wife Netty ate them for the first time and, believe it or not, I even managed to get through a couple myself. So the key is to split them [before boiling], don’t overcook, and do whatever you can to con yourself into thinking you’re eating anything other than a brussels sprout!”
After toiling round the clock to supply 25 acres of the things to stores including Marks & Spencer and Lidl, meanwhile, ‘Sprout Claus’ Cathal says he’s looking forward to enjoying a few of his own this Christmas: “Fair enough, maybe on their own, they might be [a bit bland]. Done right though, they’re absolutely gorgeous.
“I call them the Ferrero Rocher of vegetables: Raw or cooked, I’ll still eat them on Christmas Day!”
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