“The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things;
Of shoes and ships and sealing wax; of cabbages and kings…”
So wrote Lewis Carroll in The Walrus and the Carpenter, one of the very few poems in which the humble cabbage gets a mention. Can anybody actually think of another notable cabbage literary moment? Because let’s face it: over the centuries, the cabbage has never really been elevated to romantic leading man status, has it? Poems about roses are two a penny; and lillies, sunflowers, trees, violets and apples have all seized the imaginations of poets. The cabbage? Not so much. Sure – roses have their heady fragrance; sunflowers their exuberant colour; and apples their sweet taste. In a world obsessed with obvious appeal, the humble cabbage seems ill-equipped to compete with these almost flagrantly obvious attributes, having been described at various times as plain, noxious, smelly, and ridiculous.
But that is not to say the cabbage is without allure. Because whereas writers seemed repulsed by the cabbage, painters seem positively drawn (hah!) to it. Cabbages were a symbol of wealth in Chinese art, and have always been a popular motif in Western art through the ages (read a fascinating article about this here). Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all believed in the life-giving powers of cabbage and constructed whole branches of medicine around the vegetable. Cabbage leaves were placed on wounds; cabbage juice was mixed with honey to soothe the eyes; cabbage was touted as a cure for baldness; and most importantly, eating a lot of cabbage was said to protect against the effects of alcohol. So, in theory at least, eating large quantities of cabbage before a feast would mean that there would be no hangover. But to me, the most fascinating thing about a cabbage is its the phenomenal resemblance it bears to the human brain. A medium cabbage, once stripped of its less tightly packed outer leaves, is about the same size, shape and weight as the human brain. It has a stem-like thickening at its base, just like a brain. And when you slice through the middle of a cabbage, the intricate fingerprint-like folds of a cabbage, each one utterly unique, uncannily resembles the folds of a human brain. So you can keep your fragrant lilies and your gaudy sunflowers and bring on the cabbage – because to me, there is nothing sexier than a big, complicated, unique brain.
Blaukraut or Rotkohl are alternative names for a traditional southern German dish of red cabbage and apples braised in vinegar. It’s a wonderful mix of the cabbage’s slightly mustardy flavour, the tartness of the vinegar and the sweetness of the apples, all underpinned by the spicy notes of bay leaves and cloves. Using the acidic vinegar as a braising liquid keeps the cabbage red, as opposed to using an alkaline liquid that would turn the cabbage a less attractive shade of blue/purple. This dish is super-simple to make and makes a wonderful accompaniment to traditional Bavarian dishes including smoky sausages or roast duck. And if the taste does not inspire you to write poetry about the humble cabbage, then nothing will!
- About 1 kg red cabbage
- 40g butter (or oil)
- 1 Tbsp soft brown sugar
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 green apples, peeled, cored and cut into cubes
- 4 Tbsp of red wine vinegar
- 1 cup red wine
- 4 whole cloves
- 2 whole bay leaves
- 2 Tbsp red currant jam (optional)
- Wash the cabbage, then slice vertically in half. Use a small sharp knife to cut out the thick stem from each half, then place each half cut side down and use a large knife to slice thinly.
- Heat the butter and sugar together in a large saucepan until lightly brown and caramelised in colour. Add the onion and apples and sautée for a few minutes. Add the cabbage and mix everything well to combine. Immediately add a little of the red wine vinegar to the cabbage to ensure that it retains its red color.
- Add the red wine, the rest of the vinegar, bay leaves and cloves and cook with the lid on over low heat for about 45-60 minutes, or until the cabbage is tender. Check for seasoning, adding salt and more vinegar if necessary. Stir in the jam and serve hot.