Cabbage is one of the old Nordic vegetables, and is considered as one of the most important. It has been grown in some form or other for thousands of years in Scandinavia. Read more about Scandinavian cabbage & kale.
In the Viking age, it was the only vegetable grown, and kitchen gardens around the houses were simply called kale-yards. Cabbages and kale are perfect winter food even in extreme climates. Historically, cabbage was eaten in unbelievable quantities, and its wholesome, vitamin-packed leaves have been a means of survival during many winters, long before the potato reached Scandinavian shores.
After the arrival of the potato, it became a winter staple alongside cabbage. The total amount of vegetables eaten was much larger then even though these were mainly cabbages and potatoes. This is evident in the variety and abundance of recipes for these vegetables, and in the use of cabbage as an accompaniment to everything, except fish. There are countless regional recipes for kale and white cabbage, and some are worth preserving, though others are too fatty or labor intensive to make except at Christmas, when old traditions are still kept very much alive.
Related: Scandinavian Vegetables
Cabbage has always been cheap, and this simple fact made the vegetable increasingly unpopular among the bourgeoisie in the 19th century who considered it far too low and common for their dinner tables. This meant that they introduced and grew a lot of new vegetables, and there was a decline in cabbage eating, except by country dwellers and the very poor. Cabbage eating was considered as unthinkable as wearing diamonds in the morning, the very smell of boiling cabbage became the smell of poverty, and nobody ate cabbage if they did not have to up to the 1950s-70s. As new leafy and imported vegetables had become popular, the total amount of vegetables eaten has declined dramatically, so Scandinavians eat a far greater variety of vegetables now, but far fewer of them. The heavy cabbage has been replaced by much less lettuce and other greens.
The health food movement and growing environmental concerns have brought a change in attitudes over the past 25 or 35 years. Young cooks, eager for indigenous originality, health nuts and foodies have rediscovered kale, cabbage and other brassicas. Small farms are growing interesting cultivars again, and an increasing number of Scandinavians are tiring of tasteless import, and are sourcing local, seasonal foods. There has been a small revolution in cabbage eating. Cabbage is once again becoming all the rage, and is seen far too good not to eat every day, at the same time it is one of the cheapest ways of making sure your family is well fed.
How it grows
Kale is extremely hardy, and well suited for the harsh growing conditions in the north. Kale and Brussels sprouts are not usually all harvested at once, but left in the ground to be gathered when needed. Kale leaves sticking out of the snow in private gardens, even in deepest winter, are a familiar sight. Headed cabbages are not nearly as hardy, and must be harvested and stored before the first severe frosts.
All brassicas are greedy and need a great deal of watering and nurturing to grow to the enormous size they can accomplish. Kale, for winter, and leafy summer cabbages for eating straight away should be in every kitchen garden. Winter cabbages on the other hand, can be bought at ridiculously low prices, and only if you have lots of space are they worth growing and storing.
Appearance and taste
All the varied and strange cabbages we now grow stem from a single wild biennial Brassica oleracea, which still grows all over southern Europe. Through the ages, expert gardeners have domesticated and selected cabbages so that we now have a huge amount of choice. Every part of the plant has been carefully selected, by watchful breeders over time, until flower heads, unfurled shoots, stems and leaves have become new cultivars in their own right, such as cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi.
Wild cabbages consisting mostly of large green leaves, have been selected for their beauty, coloring, growing habit and taste to create all the different types of kale we now grow. Kale (also known as borecole) is the oldest form of domesticated cabbage, very close to its wild ancestor, but an enormous improvement on the incredibly coarse and bitter original. These cabbages have been with us since the Romans efficiently spread them all over Europe.
The cultivation of round and pointed red green and white cabbages is not nearly so old. There are such a number of forms that they probably evolved in several places at once, but white cabbage is believed to have originated in Germany during the Middle Ages. Savoy cabbages are a couple of centuries younger.
The origins of cabbages chosen for their enlarged flowers such as cauliflowers, are not clear, but cauliflower was probably selected in the Arab world during the Middle Ages. It spread very fast, reaching Europe in only a hundred years, and was grown in northern Europe by the 17th century. Cauliflower has always been considered a fine thing, even by the rich.
Calabrese, broccoli and sprouting broccoli come from Italy and have been known to the rest of the world only for some 200 years. Brussel sprouts are essentially cabbages whose unopened new buds along the stem are what’s eaten. They were first cultivated in Belgium (not surprisingly) only 200 years ago.
Eating habits have spread slowly, throughout history, and it’s fair to conclude that the region in which the plant is most prolifically grown and consumed is likely to be where it first originated. There is something awe-inspiring about a plant that bears in it the possibilities of such enormous variation, and about the tremendous amount of human insight and labor which goes into making the variation happen.
Buying and storing
Kale can be bought as a whole beautiful uprooted plant; it will be very decorative for weeks in a bucket of water by your front door. Or you can buy the washed leaves, in plastic bags, or chopped and frozen. Winter cabbage are easy to store, as long as you choose a cold place, not necessarily the fridge. Leafy cabbages must be very fresh and juicy. If they are limp, with yellowing leaves, they are past their prime. When buying green summer cabbages, check that they are well filled and not just green leaves surrounding emptiness. You can eat the tenderest of the outer leaves, but the inner ones are best.
Green brassicas are bursting with beta-carotene, the red cultivates with anthocyan, both powerful antioxidants, and some B vitamins which are not readily obtainable in other foods. They also contain lots of calcium, phosphorus, iron and a considerable amount of vitamin C. In other words, brassicas in some form should be eaten every day.
We have many lovely cabbage dishes, some more and some less traditional, in which meat, cabbage and onions synthesize in melting ways.
Some, such as creamed kale and pickled red cabbage, are indispensable for traditional Christmas, while some dishes are pure comfort food: creamed cabbage for frikadeller, or creamy cabbage soup topped with crispy bacon and mace, which will make you feel like a child again, even if you are actually still a child.
Other dishes are for every day, but must be cooked in large quantities to make any sense; for example slow-cooked caramelized brown cabbage with pork ribs, or får I kål, a Norwegian favorite originally made with mutton, but more palatable for touchy modern taste buds if made with lamb. Winter cabbage salads are also popular, such as red cabbage and fruit, kale with soured cream, or Brussels sprout salad with nuts.
In summer, Scandinavians eat fine young pointed cabbages barely cooked with dill or bacon, perfect with smoked fish and light meats. Scandinavians eat cauliflower as a velvet soup (prepared exactly like asparagus soup) or lightly steamed and dressed with small shrimp, dill and melted butter.
Cabbage is infamous for the smelly fumes it emits while cooking and for the uncompromising way it makes you fart. Many cabbage recipes include caraway seeds, both for their taste and because they keep the flatulence to a minimum. It is a matter of habit, however, and if you eat cabbage frequently, your bowels get used to it.
Kale is bitter, and also rather tough, which is not a problem if it is cooked; it just needs a long time in the pot to cook to perfect tender creaminess. If used as a salad, kale must be cut into very fine strips.
(Crambe maritima) is a huge white-flowering perennial with giant, glaucous leaves and billions of fawn seeds in autumn, is a different species from cabbage. It is protected wherever it grows, and you cannot pick the leaves or even the seeds, as it is endangered. Sea kale was grown as a luxurious spring vegetable in Victorian times, cut and blanched in early spring. You can buy seeds for a white and purple-tinged cultivate.
Feature image (on top) Cabbage. Photo: Wikipedia
Scandinavian Cabbage & Kale, written by Tor Kjolberg