"sometimes known as a cabbage which will not grow up, but that is hardly an apt description, for this plant with neither head nor heart - which grows resolutely flat in every season - is actually a worthy survivor." Bert Greene
Bert Greene was a man ahead of his time. He published his Greene on Greens back in 1984, and whilst this is, admittedly, several years after the likes of Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David were writing, it is still many years before the current kale craze.
What I found particularly amazing about these early writers was the fact that neither Jane Grigson nor Elizabeth David really mention it. Elizabeth David wrote her Italian Food in 1954 - admittedly times of hardship in England. Even so she does not even mention cavolo nero in her introduction to the chapter on vegetables. My yellowing Penguin edition, shown below, however, had a cover which features just two vegetables - artichokes and what must be cavolo nero surely, with the same two repeated in the full page drawing fronting the piece about Italian vegetables. There is not one single recipe for cavolo nero - otherwise known as Tuscan kale, although obviously the Italian artist who illustrated the book thought that it was important. I wonder if she noticed?
Jane Grigson writing somewhat later in 1978, also does not have a chapter on kale. She does mention it very dismissively: "Kale I have always hated, though curly kale will pass" in her chapter on spring and winter greens, but that's it. No further reference. She does however have a brief chapter on seakale, which although it shares the same common name is not really that closely related. Yes it's a brassica but doesn't have the first latin name brassica, like all the other kale related plants. Instead it is crambe maritima. It grows on European beaches - that's it on the right at the top of the page.
And apparently it is grown in English gardens and used, although I have to say I don't remember it. Neither the leaves, which are indeed similar to what we know as kale, nor the sprouts which are obtained by covering the stems to make them white. These are treated a bit like asparagus, and I have never seen them here. I do not know whether seakale grows here.
So Bert Greene, writing a decade later was still a man well ahead of his time. I checked out Beverley Sutherland Smith's large tome on vegetables - The Seasonal Kitchen published in 2001 and found that it makes absolutely no reference to kale - not even in passing. Stephanie Alexander in 2004 in the first edition of The Cook's Companion mentions it briefly in her chapter on cabbage and associates, but she really doesn't make a big thing of it. I'm probably not being quite fair here - there are a couple of featured recipes and also a few small marginal easy quick things. And she almost exclusively refers to it as cavolo nero. Delia has no recipes on her website either. Donna Hay has dozens.
These days however you can't open an edition of the Coles Magazine for example without kale being featured somewhere. And the new generation of cookbook writers, the Ottolenghis, Nigel Slaters, Jamies et al. have countless recipes for it. How this came to be I do not know. There are various stories out there, but there are an equal number of knockers of the stories, so who knows. It just grew like topsy.
"When things like kale or avocados come along, it’s more of a specific item and thus easier to market and brand – as opposed to advocating for fruit and vegetables as a whole ... Typically, what happens with those campaigns is they end up displacing other vegetables in the category." Anna Taylor - The Food Foundation UK
Which is a bit sad for all those other good things. I suspect that silver beet may have suffered somewhat here - which is perhaps why we now have rainbow chard. Kale is everywhere however - it's in your supermarket and in your garden. Even I have some - looking a bit like miniature palm trees. And if I can grow it anyone can.
When I first planted them - well when they had grown sufficiently to be eaten it was a bit of a race between me and some kind of tiny insect - I never saw them - to eat them. I would find the stems still there but the leaf had been neatly chewed away. Now the insects seem to have more or less given up and so I have a regular if not particularly lush supply. Certainly sufficient for me.
Initially I resisted kale. Most likely because of all the fuss being made about it, but I was given some by my gardening friend and had to use it up. Now I use it quite often, not for its own sake really, but as some greenery in soups, stews, pasta sauces, etc. I just peel the leaves off the stalks, wash them and then shred them before adding to whatever it is I want to add it to. To be honest I can't say it has a lot of taste, but I'm sure it is nutritious and it is quite a satisfying green to use.
Back to Bert Greene. In his introduction he had a few bits of trivia - some of it vaguely historical, some of it legend and folk tale which I would like to share because they were all rather lovely.
"Some scientists claim that a wild grass not unlike this one covered the earth billions of years ago, transplanted to dry ground from the sea where it had once flourished. Leaf impressions discovered in the remains of eluvial ooze where dinosaurs once lumbered are in fact almost line-for-line copies of the same vegetable I batter-fry or chop into a skillet whenever the yearning for honest winter greens assails my tongue."
"The ancient Egyptians had a shorter growing season and believed that the lack of this green in their diet was a punishment from the gods. Serious wine-bibbers considered kale a prophylactic against hangovers; when the stalks withered, headaches flourished. Including the pharaoh's. In Akhenaton's tomb, the sarcophagus was paved with kale leaves carved of jade so they would never shrivel."
"The Irish say fairies ride kale stalks in the dark of the moon. When an Irish farmer finds the curly leaves in disarray at sunup it means his crops will all flourish and grow tall."
"It is a favoured pastime of marriageable maidens in the Highlands [of Scotland] to strip the leaves from kale as we would from a daisy, calling out the name of every eligible male in town as each leaf is tossed into the casserole. The name assigned to the very last leaf is reputedly the spouse-to-be. Scottish lassies may alter the prognostication, however - by simply refusing to eat the dish concocted of this leaves."
He has about a dozen recipes for kale which are surprisingly modern. There are slaws, braises, Turkish meatballs, and battered leaves which rather foretell the kale chips that are such a thing these days.
And what about those other leafy things - the co. of my post title. Well I just mention them here, for sometimes people seem to be confused about what to call kale. Quite apart from the variations in actual kale - and it's various names - cavolo nero, chou frisé, Krauskohl to name but a few - there are also collard greens - somebody seemed to think this was the same thing (it's not) and spring greens - ditto. Then there's broccoli rabe and suchlike. I guess it's a blurring from cabbage, to spring greens and collard greens which are sort of cabbages without a heart, to kale and seakale. And let's not forget spinach and silver beet - although they really are not related. Below we have collard greens, spring greens and kale - curly and Tuscan.
I'm pretty sure I've written about spring greens before, and I may have 'done' kale too. Which by the way is indeed very nutritious - as Bert Greene says, it is "inordinately high in vitamin A (9000 units per cup)" and also high in calcium and potassium. So you can't knock it. It's pretty, it's useful, it's healthy, it's easy to grow even if it's not particularly tasty. Well I don't think so anyway.