15 minutes of fame for kale

It was drummed into us as children: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Which is why, in 15 years of horticultural journalism, I haven’t written a single story about kale.

It’s not that I don’t like kale. I really haven’t got a bad word to say about it. Nor a good one. Kale’s just a bit player in the brassica family, like the kid picked last for a sports team. Even the chickens left it till last when they pillaged my vege patch.

Come spring, pagans celebrate by dancing around bonfires, whereas I simply give thanks that I’ve survived another winter without having to eat too much kale. Though frosts sweeten its flavour, kale is still only tender enough to eat raw in salads at the baby leaf stage. Spirulina drinkers could also add it to their smoothies I suppose. Mash cooked kale with spuds, like the Dutch dish stamppot, or hide it between the layers of a vegetarian lasagne.

King Seeds offer Blue Ridge, a dark blue-green ruffled hybrid; the handsome Squire, which forms a shaggy Sideshow Bob-style mop top; and a new hybrid named Red Monarch, which deepens to dark purple in wintry weather. There’s also raggedy Red Russian, described in Egmont Seeds’ online catalogue as “any chef’s dream in a stir-fry”. Good try, but the only kale considered hip in culinary circles is the rustic Tuscan variety, Di Toscana or cavolo nero.

Cavolo nero looks like an inside out cabbage, with long crinkly leaves that arch like fronds, giving rise to its other common name, palm tree cabbage. It’s quite striking but in my spray-free garden it’s also a magnet for whitefly. They congregate along the wrinkly undersides of its leaves and are a devil to scrub off. I shudder to think how many I’ve eaten.

One kale I’m keen to get my hands on is the European sea kale, Crambe maritima. I first admired it a decade ago in the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman’s famous shingle garden at Dungeness. Blanched, its spring shoots are said to be similar to salty asparagus.

Our closest coastal native equivalent is Cook’s scurvy grass, Lepidium oleraceum, a scrappy perennial with a not dissimilar flavour to kale, but a much fussier temperament. According to Oratia Native Nursery, it “demands high nutrients such as guano”.  For Cook’s scurvy grass,
being crapped on from a great height by seagulls isn’t just good luck, it’s life-preserving.

Self Sufficiently Lynda is published each week in Sunday magazine, in the Sunday Star-Times.

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