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Foodstuff

Unloved Vegetables: of Leeks and Sprouts. Portraits.

  • Yannick Portebois

Corps de l’article

The leek (le poireau), often called in French l’asperge du pauvre (the asparagus of the poor), remains an unsung vegetable. As a commodity, it cannot claim to have built empires, like sugar or coffee. Rather, its “political role” in history may be that it kept revolutions at bay by feeding poor people cheaply. French and English historical cookbooks testify to this. For example, in 1861, the ever-practical Mrs Beeton offered a “very affordable” leek soup recipe, costing it at 4d. per quart of soup. By comparison, her “very economical” potato soup recipe averaged 3d. per quart. [1] In other words, only potatoes were cheaper than leeks.

Like the onion, its cousin, the leek is a winter vegetable, inexpensive, sturdy, and resistant; it will keep for several months, thus its association with farmhouse cooking, and rustic food. This image endures: the Centre technique interprofessionnel des fruits et légumes (CTIFL, in Paris), conducted a national study about leeks in 2010. French consumers under 35 years old (the target market) described leeks as “traditional,” associating it, as one would expect, with home-made food, comfort food (such as soups), conviviality and family; its health properties were well-known (very low in calorie and an excellent diuretic). [2]

The leek may be said to have a “double personality.” It has long been prized for its aromatic properties, and praised as an essential addition to stocks (along with the onion), and soups or stews (the French pot-au-feu, among other “one-pot-dishes”). [3] Even the great Escoffier considered leeks as absolutely necessary for sauces and broths. Conversely, as the principal ingredient of a dish, leeks remain associated with a handful of rustic, “cuisine-on-a-budget” fare, in particular with the poireaux en vinaigrette, which are simply well-cooked leeks, served with a mustard-based vinaigrette, as an entrée; [4] the tarte aux poireaux, a variation on quiche; the famous potato and leek soup (combining Mrs Beeton’s affordable and economical ingredients); and the poireaux bretons, in which cooked leeks are wrapped in a slice of ham, and served in béchamel sauce topped with slices of hard-boiled eggs.

In recent years, in an effort to shake this “cooking-for-the-poor” image, vegetable-growers associations invited chefs to re-invent the vegetable. Québec producers have joined their French counterparts’ efforts, to produce over 250 recipes, freeing the leek from its (perceived) limited applications. It now has a full répertoire of its own, from shellfish (including the delicate noix de saint-Jacques), to the use of the leaves as innovative and savory papillottes for salmon. [5] The farm-to-table movement also rediscovered leeks. Among the twelve or so heirloom varieties available, [6] the poireau de Créances [7] stands out: long and thin, its delicate white flesh can measure up to 20 cm (8 inches, as opposed to four or five in. for the common winter leek). So tender it can be eaten raw, it recently earned an Indication géographique protégée from the European Union, recognizing its qualities and its terroir[8]

Not bad for a humble vegetable.

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Brussels sprouts are also a winter vegetable. Like onions and leeks, they can last several months if kept properly. According to the FoodLand Ontario website, brussels sprouts were introduced in North America by Thomas Jefferson, which is a perfectly respectable way to enter any continent. [9] Despite its eminent godfather, the petit chou enjoys a bad reputation. It may even be said to be one of the most unloved vegetables. Except if one adds butter to it. Mrs. Eliza Acton urged serving brussels sprouts with “good butter,” along with “a rather thick round of toasted bread buttered on both sides.” [10] Mrs. Beeton, influenced by Acton, recommended serving the sprout with over one ounce of butter, or with a sauce maître d’hôtel. In addition, she suggested to the adroit cook to use a bit of artistry to increase the appeal of the sprouts: “They [the brussels sprouts] must, however, be sent to the table very quickly, as, being so very small, this vegetable soon cools. Where the cook is very expeditious, this vegetable, when cooked, may be arranged on the dish in the form of a pineapple, and, so served, has a very pretty appearance.” [11]

Beauty alone may not be enough to woo consumers today, [12] even if SeriousEats named the sprout “ingredient of the year” in 2009. [13] For the past decade, a two-pronged campaign has been raging, to make brussels sprouts appealing to large constituencies. It’s health against enhanced taste.

The Fresh Vegetable Growers of Ontario, along with Health Canada, the provincial ministries of Health, and Dietitians of Canada/Les diététistes du Canada, sing the praise of the vegetable, gracing it with all possible virtues: low calorie, no fat, no cholesterol, an excellent source of vitamins C and K, a good source of vitamin A and folate. In addition, it offers fibre, potassium, iron, vitamin B6, manganese, magnesium and thiamin. [14] The UK website Grow Your Own, which provides gardening as well as nutritional information to gardeners, advises: “Delicious [the sprouts] if cooked properly.” [15] Indeed, it’s all in the cooking, where the taste enhancement takes place. Kraft Canada is proposing 13 recipes for brussels sprouts; Canadian Living, no less that 24 recipes for it. [16] It must be noted that several (if not most) of these recipes include bacon, richly celebrating the marriage between the unloved vegetable and the over-cherished smoked slab of pork. Michael Smith and Laura Calder have their own versions of the recipe, as well as Stacey DeWolfe, from Cult Montréal, T.V. hosts Steven and Chris, and Gordon Ramsey − whose recipe include not only pancetta, but pancetta rendered in goose fat. [17] In Québec and France, the “choux de Bruxelles aux lardons” are no less popular. [18] In the 21st century, it’s bacon over butter and beauty.

According to Statistics Canada, the annual average consumption of brussels sprouts in Canada is about 200 gr. per person. [19] The Canadian intake has remained remarkably stable since 1981 − 200 gr. per person per year. No more, no less. The British, in turn, consume 3.5 kg of sprouts per person per year, immediately followed by the Dutch (2.5 kg). The French eat about 600 gr. [20] The “fondness” of the British for the green globe must be tempered: brussels sprouts are a Christmas tradition, and are considered an essential element of the family celebration − which does not mean that it is a loved vegetable, maybe not even an “acquired taste.” Most sales take place in December. [21] Belgium, the birthplace of the sprout, is the third largest European producer, but only the fourth consumer. [22]

Is there a future for the brussels sprout? The lonely vegetable does not even have a champion, like garlic for example, which is “represented” by no less than four organizations: the Association des Producteurs d’ail de la Drôme; the Groupement des Producteurs d’ail fumé d’Arleux; the Syndicat de défense du Label Rouge et de l’IGP Ail rose de Lautrec; and the Association de défense de l’ail blanc de Lomagne. Beets have the Association pour la qualité de la betterave rouge. Green lentils can count on the Association des lentilles vertes du Berry. Most vegetables have a champion. Not the sprout. In fact, nothing much seems to be moving in the world of the sprout, except bacon sales.

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