30 August 2011

Science with Peter

Long promised and long awaited:
Why you must eat cabbage within two hours of harvesting. Or, why children are right to loathe school dinner cabbage and most brussels sprouts.

In order to enjoy a cabbage in all its glorious sweetness, your choices are these, in order of preference:
1 Pick your own and cook within two hours.
2 Find one at a farmers market, picked yesterday (but remember to cook it at once).
3 In winter buy brussels sprouts on their own sticks. The sprouts are under the impression that they're still growing so they stay fresh for longer.
4 Last choice, and only in desperation, go to a supermarket, where your cabbage will have been sitting around for quite a while. And it will have received bumps and bruises which you may not be able to see but you will be able to taste.

This is the point with cabbages - we rarely experience their better side. However, there are people in the know and I feel privileged to impart this crucial information. The old boys at the allotment of a Sunday morning consider the handling of cabbages in their order of business. They cut their cabbage last and take it home carefully (not via the pub). It is imperative that one's brassicas are dropped into boiling water without delay, and especially, without being bumped.

'When brassicas are bashed they start to produce mustard oil', Peter informs us in the tack room at Marsh Hall. I've begun carrying a notebook when Peter is around: idle conversation is never completely idle.

'This emission of oil makes them taste and smell horrid. The more a cabbage is bashed the more mustard oil it produces. One of the nastiest smells you can get is the smell of rotting cabbages.' And then: 'Mustard oil is only a few molecules away from mustard gas.' What!

Notoriously, mustard gas was used during the First World War, as an added weapon in shell attacks. It is a blistering agent and can sometimes lead to a slow and painful death. Somehow, ironically, it is odorless.

Telling non-believers about the three or four degrees of separation between cabbage and poison gas will not make any converts. Instead, try boiling your freshly cut cabbage and serve it proudly, along with a blindfold.

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