Last month, something strange happened in a small Costwolds market town. Usually home to just 3,000 people, Chipping Campden was overrun with an equal number of visitors who had come to celebrate the most unlikely of things: the Brussels sprout.
Except for those who gathered in Chipping Campden didn't call them Brussels sprouts, but "British sprouts". And they weren't cooking them with roast turkey as a warm-up for Christmas dinner. They had gathered to reinvent the smallest and least-loved of the brassicas (the group of vegetables including broccoli, radish, mustard plant and cabbage) and give an ailing British industry a much-needed boost.
As we all know, sprouts have something of a reputation. Most of us probably had them piled on to our school dinner plates after they'd been left to boil for half an hour. And since all brassicas have mustardy oils which convert to sulphureous and ammoniacal smells (in other words, a whiff like rotten eggs) if cooked for too long, we grow up hating them, using them as the butt of jokes and even advertising campaigns. But rather like over-cooked sprouts themselves, these jokes have alarming and unpleasant consequences.
Even the most optimistic sources say that the industry is only stable, if not declining. It's certainly not in as good shape as it could be. UK sprouts fetch £30m each year. That may sound a lot, but that's not what the farmers get, it's the retail value – the cash parted with at supermarkets and by restaurants – including exports. Compare that to the figures for potatoes (£3.6bn), leafy salads (£187m), carrots (£161m), onions (£127m) and even leeks (£49m), and suddenly it doesn't look so good. And there's an extra problem with sprouts that you don't encounter with other vegetables – despite the length of the harvest, which lasts from late August to the end of March, they're only in demand for 25 December.
Roger Welberry is a fourth-generation sprout grower from Boston, Lincolnshire, and he's also the president of the British Sprout Growers' Association (BSGA). Why does he stick with the crop? "Well, we could grow other green vegetables but we can grow sprouts very well, it suits our climate and land, and we don't want to lose it," he says. Hence the rebranding as British sprouts. They may have come to Britain via Brussels, but it's a British crop. And in these days when consumers want to know where their food comes from, and to boost domestic agriculture, naming them after Brussels is not the sort of thing that wins marketing awards.
But a new name is not all that's different between Welberry's crop and the sprouts you ate as a child. "They've had a bad press for 10 years, but the seed companies have countered that by developing smaller, sweeter varieties," says Welberry. "If you have avoided them for years, try them again, they won't be as bitter as you remember."
So that's what the people of Chipping Campden were up to – getting people to try sprouts again. William Haines, a local sprout grower, tried everything to get people eating his favourite crop, press-ganging children who said they had never eaten sprouts. "We had to literally drag them off to the town hall. So many kids say they don't like sprouts, but they've never tasted them. Everyone in the town got involved – hotels, restaurants, the tea rooms which made a sprouts cake along the lines of a carrot cake and the fish and chip shop, which deep-fried them in batter." The wackiest idea: a cocktail of sprout juice, Tia Maria and Cointreau. Interesting.
Of course, they were just making a point: you can eat sprouts in many different ways, and while those particular ideas may not sound too appetising, there are other good ones. Luckily, there was one man in Chipping Campden with the skills to raise the profile of the sprout: former chef Felice Tocchini. Now the manager of the town's Seymour House Hotel, Tocchini was born in Italy but knows how to make the most of this British veg. Tocchini produced a stunning parade of dishes, both classic and invented, worthy of a place on any menu: salads, soups, stir-fries, quiches, tarts and casseroles. Among the best were a delicious sprout risotto and a sprout and chestnut soup (see recipes).
Aside from taste and support for farmers, there's a third prong to the campaign: health. The BSGA invited Dr Elisabeth Lund from the Food Research Institute in Norwich to explain why sprouts are so good for you. All brassicas are highly nutritious, she said, rich in vitamins A (in the form of beta carotene) and vitamin C, containing antioxidants that protect you from cancer. But, uniquely, sprouts have now been found to contain a substance called sinigrin. This is the SAS of the biological world, selectively seeking out and destroying damaged cells. It is at its most effective in the raw vegetable, and loses potency the longer it is cooked.
So if you're planning to boil them for Christmas lunch, don't leave them bubbling away for too long – certainly no longer than five minutes. Not only will you be reducing their healthiness, but you'll hate the taste, too – it has been scientifically proven that those eggy odours I mentioned double between the fifth and seventh minutes of cooking. And, perhaps most importantly, you'll ruin your desire to try out any of the recipes that appear on the page opposite.