Why is it a ‘thing’ to have Brussels sprouts at Christmas?

Like them or loathe them, brussels sprouts are an integral part of Christmas dinner. It wouldn’t be a traditional meal without those weird little cabbages rolling about next to the turkey. But how did such an unlikely vegetable become so synonymous with Christmas? And why was your nan so insistent that you eat them all? Let’s dig into it.

Brussels sprouts come to the UK

Brussels sprouts are exactly what they look like – miniature cabbages. As the name suggests, they’ve been popular in Belgium and Holland for hundreds of years. But they didn’t really become a thing in the UK until the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth century was a time of global expansion and experimentation. So it’s not surprising that the Victorians were the first people to import brussels sprouts to the UK on a wide scale. At the time, sprouts would have seemed sophisticated and exotic (a far cry from their modern reputation!), and wealthy Victorian families were probably amused by the concept of teeny weeny cabbages (despite their Queen’s reputation, many Victorians were surprisingly easy to amuse).

Brussels sprouts are easy to grow and are very resilient to frost. Some even believe that a frost actually enhances their flavour. What’s more, Brussels sprouts grow during the dead of winter – which goes some way to explaining why they’re such a Christmas staple: they’re one of few vegetables which can be reliably harvested at Christmastime. However, there’s a lot more to sprouts than simply looking funny to Victorians and growing at a convenient time.

Sprouts are astonishingly good for you

Each Brussels sprout is a powerhouse of vitamins and nutrients. Although the Victorians probably didn’t know this when they first began to introduce sprouts to Christmas dinners, sprouts also contain precisely the kinds of nutrients you need to fend off winter chills and to help your body to deal with Christmas excesses. Just one sprout contains:

  • More Vitamin C than an orange. Essential for keeping your immune system healthy through cold season!
    Vitamin K. Which is needed to keep your blood pressure down and your bone health up. Blood pressure can be prone to rise (for various reasons!) over the Christmas period.
  • Fibre. Fibre is essential for keeping your digestive system ploughing away at your Christmas nibbles. It also lowers blood sugar – which is a blessing after a hearty serving of Christmas pudding.
  • Kaempferol. A powerful antioxidant which can help protect your heart from all kinds of disease.
  • More Omega 3 fatty acids than most other vegetables. Omega 3 fatty acids keep your brain sharp and your body free of inflammation.
  • Compounds which help your liver. Many of us enjoy a tipple or three on Christmas day. So it’s lucky that Brussels sprouts contain a variety of compounds which promote liver health.

It’s not hard to make sprouts tasty

Brussels sprouts have had a renaissance lately. Britain has got a lot better at cooking over the last 50 or so years, so the over-boiled, yellow, rotten-egg tasting sprouts of our childhoods are a thing of the past. Still, some don’t like them – and that’s understandable. The taste of Brussels sprouts is quite distinctive.

The good news is that it’s very easy to make Brussels sprouts more palatable. Because they’re essentially tightly balled bundles of leaves they absorb juices and gravies very well when sliced. Try sprinkling them with parmesan. The tartness of the parmesan offsets and neutralises the earthier tones of the sprouts, making this an excellent combination. Apple or nutmeg sauces also compliment sprouts perfectly.

As a general rule, the longer you boil sprouts, the worse they will smell. However, there are many other ways of cooking them which don’t involve boiling them to death. Roast them with bacon lardons, or steam them butter and a drizzle of squeezed orange (again, the tart citrus flavour will work wonders on that sprouty taste). Alternatively, you could not cook them at all and instead shred the sprout leaves into a salad. Try using sprouts in place of cabbage in a nice citrus and pomegranite salad. Or use sprout leaves in the place of cabbage in coleslaw.

Sprouts are amazingly versatile, so don’t be afraid to play around and experiment!

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