Thursday, November 25, 2010

Keeping Your Cauliflowers Suntan Free

Peter Ashcroft believes that his cauliflowers are wired to the moon.
Via Youtube I accompany the West Lancashire based cauliflower farmer on his rounds in the hope of gaining some clues as to when my own winter caulis are likely to start flowering.  He's just the latest in a legion of true characters from all over the planet who have taught me via the worldwide college that is Youtube.
Ashcroft tells the camera he’s been farming since he was very little and has been working at it ever since he can remember, helping his dad as a child and then leaving school aged 15 to join him on the land. “Some years you make money and quite a lot of years you lose money,” is his take on a life of commercial cauli farming.
And while I don’t glean any vital clues from the steady Lanc as to when my own Roscoffs are likely to start producing heads, he does provide me with a few pretty decent nuggets of cauliflower wisdom. Firstly that the cauliflowers we get in the shops are only white because farmers take measures to shade them from the sun, otherwise they turn a more natural yellow. They’re supposed to be yellow.
“There’s nothing wrong with yellow caulis-  just that people won’t eat them,” he opines. “People like bronzed bodies from the sun, but they won’t eat bronzed cauliflowers,” he asserts.  Indeed he has a point.

Lancashire cauli man Peter Ashcroft with a healthy handful
So he shows us his own little trick to stop his caulis getting a tan whilst simultaneously to keeping the birds from spotting them. He bends a big surrounding leaf over until the stem cracks and makes a sort of natural lid for the emerging floret.
Ashcroft also believes his caulis are influenced by the moon cycles. “The moon is very important for cauliflowers. As the moon is coming to the full, nine times out of ten you’ll get a lot of cauliflowers. When the moon is full, something in the gravitational pull or light levels alters the growth cycle in the cauliflowers.”
It’s been a blue moon since I visited Plot 34, which I haven’t seen now in a good many weeks and where, despite winter arriving,  I still have a few crops remaining. Cabbages, some spuds still in the ground, a large bed of celeriac and finally there’s the cauliflowers which have all grown ginormous – to about four feet high. But still no sign of a floret.
Back in the garden I have five or six more cauli plants of the same variety – an particularly Irish heritage strain of Winter Roscoff, the seeds of which I acquired from Irish Seedsavers.  Seedsavers in turn procured them from an elderly farmer in County Dublin who may or may not be aware that he has been instrumental in preventing the particular strain from being lost here in Ireland.
Because I’m not going up to the allotment too often these winter days, the handful of Roscoffs in the garden were put there as an early warning system -  to let me know when their siblings, five miles away, would be ready to pick. Like their same species sisters, the broccoli,  they can ripen and turn quite quickly and it’ll be a wasted effort if I don’t harvest them at the opportune moment.

My "early warning" garden cauli plants
The problem is that in the months ahead in the garden I’m replacing the old wooden shed in the garden with a larger steel version. We’re expecting again any day now and my office is about to be being evicted from the house. I’ll be rehoused in the steel shed which will come fully insulated and in the process I'll be joining the long tradition of Irish men whose domestic presence has been downgraded to ancillary outdoors accommodation.
But it’ll be built right on top of the home cauliflower bed. While I don’t mind losing these few plants, with them go my alarm system or their counterparts on Plot 34.
I haven’t grown cauliflower before because I heard they can be quite difficult.  My current batch were sprouted in the greenhouse last March and went into the ground a month or so later. And even at four feet, there’s still no sign of a small white curd emerging at their centre any time I go rooting in there in search of progress.

Without a sun tan
The "cauli" from cauliflower is the latin for "cabbage." So as the name suggests, they’re cabbage flowers. They always need a good rich soil as they're heavy feeders and plenty of water. Caulis like cool weather and I read that any jolts in their life cycle will effect their abilitity to flower. So I’m hoping the easter heatwave hasn’t thrown them out. The seed packet doesn’t say when they’re normally ready for harvest only “cut as heads develop.”

With a tan
The white curd is of course a flower, much like the broccoli head. Indeed there’s a sort of halfway house between the two – a green cauliflower some people call brocciflower.  Caulis also come in less frequent purples and oranges (fake tan?) as well as the familiar creamy white.
Caulis are low in fat, high in fibre and quite dense in nutrition. They contain a range of phytochemicals including sulforapane which fights cancer. Unfortunately the traditional Irish way of cooking them – boiling them to within an inch of their life – actually renders most of these useless. Ten minutes in boiling water kills half of these. So the best way to prepare cauliflowers is to steam it or stir fry it. Or even eat it raw. Another beneficial substance contained in caulis is the indole-3-carbinal a chemical which also blocks cancer cells and helps boost cellular repair.
However, another Youtube grower, chirpy Claire from the Claire’s Allotment series of segments explains that home grown caulis need a thorough examination before consumption unless you want to be eating mouthfuls of heebie jeebie passengers who like nothing better than to crawl right in there between the tight pressed florets. The solution it seems is to break your heads into smaller florets and soak them in salt water for a half hour before preparation.

There's Claire now
Claire also helps me figure out when the florets are ready to pick. How do you know when they’re fully grown? When the first ones start to separate it seems. Separated cauliflower is also quite edible, which is also good to know.
Another good reason to grow cauliflower is that the fresh heads are starting to disappear from the shops.
You may have noticed caulis have been missing from some supermarket shelves of late. This is because more and more farmers are refusing to grow them because the expense involved is no longer covered by the supermarket prices offered to them.
In Britain the National Farmer’s Union has already warned that the popular veg is will disappear entirely unless the situation in remedied and farmers get a fairer price, a concern also voiced here by the Irish Farmer's Association.  The NFU says that in the UK it costs a farmer like Peter Ashcroft 44p to grow one but the supermarkets there will only pay 36p even though they sell them at £1.20 that’s a 300% mark up.

This is the main reason why Winter Roscoffs are not growing all over the fields of North Dublin as they did for generations previous to ours and why local cauli farmers like Peter Ashcroft are fast becoming extinct in these islands. They're very definitely not a protected species and with them into extinction goes the lifetime of knowledge and skill that goes with dedicating a lifetime to one food plant.

Like anything else in this day and age, you’re going to have to try much harder in future if you want to get a head.

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