“It’s a shame that seakale, our one English contribution to the basic treasury of the best vegetables, should not be more eaten”, says Jane Grigson in her Vegetable Book, “it is not often in the shops, so you have to grow it yourself.”
Yes, this recipe had been vexing me somewhat and started to make some enquiries about getting hold of some for planting in my allotment. I did a little research into it, and it seems that it is quite a simple cropping plant to grow, though it does have to be forced, i.e. grown in the dark or buried so that as it grows through the soil no light penetrates, making the stems pale and tender. It has been compared to asparagus in its delicacy and mild but delicious flavour. Anyone who grows their own asparagus will know how much of a pain weeds can be, well it seems that in seakale the problem can be averted because you can simply mix sea salt into the soil, killing weeds and adding to the seakale’s vigour. It’s win-win. Indeed, so vigorous, this rare treat results in such ‘bulky crops’ that they are ‘greedily eaten by…livestock’, says The Country Gentleman’s Magazine of 1869.
Wild sea kale in its natural habitat (photo: dorsetlife.co.uk)
If growing is not your thing, then you could try and forage some for yourself. Wild seakale, or Crambe maritima to give its Latin name, is not a common plant; this is because of its rather specific gravel or stony beach habitat. There are not that many of those, except on the south coast of England and parts of Ireland. If you have holidayed in one of these areas, one of the things may have noticed is the total lack of plant life there. Unfortunately, the plants do get somewhat trampled over by people and their beach gear. According to John Wright in his very good book Edible Seashore (part of the River Cottage Handbook series) reckons you are best looking in the fringes of the beaches where the vegetation is less disturbed. If you do find one – remember where it is so the next January or February, you can pile on some gravel and force your own to collect in April.
After all the reading I did, I happened to ask my greengrocer if she ever saw any at market. She said she’d never even heard of it! That’s how much it has fallen out of fashion. Then, quite unexpectedly, she rang me the next day and said she had seen some. Before I knew it, I was clutching six precious packs of beautifully pale yellow fronds. As soon as I got home I cooked them, using Jane as my guide, of course. This is what she says:
Simply tie in bundles and cook it in boiling salted water or steam until just tender. Drain it well, and serve with melted butter, in the same way as asparagus.
I chose to boil tied bundles of it in just a centimetre of salted water for two minutes exactly, drained it, and then served it on thickly-cut hot buttered toast with a poached egg on top plus a twist or two of the salt and pepper grinder.
Seakale. What a delight this rare treat was. It was of a very delicate flavour that was a little like asparagus, it certainly did not taste like kale or any other cabbage as you might expect. Cooking it very briefly, was definitely the way to go, such mild aromas would soon dissipate into the cooking liquid, and some books say to boil it for fifteen minutes! It cost a fair amount though, so I think I will have a go at trying to grow some on the allotment next year.