Magazine article The Spectator

The Real Brussels Elite:the Keepers of the Sprout

Magazine article The Spectator

The Real Brussels Elite:the Keepers of the Sprout

Article excerpt

With the possible exception of charades, no element of a British Christmas rivals the Brussels sprout when it comes to dividing families.

In any well-ordered family, the sprout is a source of fierce disagreement, with those that love the vegetable on one side and haters on the other. There is no Third Way of the sprout. This gulf of opinion is highly satisfactory for those of us who love sprouts.

It transforms a liking into a badge of honour, even gallantry, as we tuck into sprouts like so much green candy while siblings, wives and children turn pale at the sight.

When the Rennie family was first posted to the Belgian capital, a small part of me worried that the 'Brussels sprout' would prove to be a linguistic joke, and that they might not exist here at all. It was a needless worry. The Sunday market in our scruffy, friendly borough of Saint-Gilles is not just home to heaped piles of Brussels at this time of year.

The market itself stands on what were fields full of sprouts right up to the 19th century.

Still better, my corner of Brussels turns out to burst with pride as the birthplace of the global sprout industry. Saint-Gilles's most notable citizens belong to a fraternity devoted to the sprout, the 'Confrèrerie des Kuulkappers', or 'Brotherhood of Cabbage-cutters', after the local dialect for sprout farmers.

With Christmas looming, an audience with the kuulkappers seemed imperative. After lengthy contacts, dropping The Spectator's name secured an interview with their grandmaster, Julien Weckx, as he prepared their annual feast in an ornate inner chamber of the Saint-Gilles town hall on a recent weekend. For their banquet, the brotherhood dresses up in velvet robes and consumes such delights as venison with sprouts, sprouts with bacon and the 'Boulette des Kuulkappers' (a meatball wrapped around a single sprout, like a giant savoury gobstopper).

Weckx, a longtime deputy mayor for culture in the borough, offered a secret. No native of Brussels would dream of eating a plain boiled sprout, as the British do. 'We cook them twice, or three times, really. The first time, you cook them in water and throw the water away.' That first water is positively toxic, insisted Weckx, a veterinarian by profession. 'You rinse them with cold water and cook them a second time, and they are a great deal more pleasant.' Finally, the twicecooked sprouts are sweated with butter and diced bacon, by which time it is safe to assume they barely taste of sprouts at all.

'Traditionally, we could cook them for a good half hour. They are good and soft at the end, ' Weckx said. Natives of Brussels do not eat sprouts at Christmas, he revealed.

They serve mushrooms and chestnuts with roast turkey, and perhaps a green salad.

The brotherhood takes a dim view of suggestions that the Brussels sprout is a relatively modern import from Asia. Weckx points to the tantalising find of a menu from a 12thcentury Flemish nobleman's wedding, which talks of 'choux d'Obbrussel'. Obbrussel is the old name for Saint-Gilles, but the reference is ambiguous. In modern French, 'choux de Bruxelles' may stand for sprouts, but the phrase only literally means 'Brussels cabbages'. Those 12th-century nobles may have been dining on sprouts, or cabbage.

The brotherhood has better proof of cabbage-farming in Saint-Gilles. Belgian judicial archives hold a judgment from 1533, handing down a death sentence to a pig belonging to a local kuulkapper, which had killed and eaten a child. In keeping with the harsh justice meted out to animals at that date, the murderous pig was drawn and quartered alive. …

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