• Maureen Little

Cavolo Nero - the 'dark side' of the cabbage family!

‘Humph. Cow fodder. Didn’t realise things were that tight.’ These were the words my dear, old, and often cantankerous, dad uttered when I presented him with Cavolo Nero along with his favourite roast beef, roast spuds, parsnips and lashings of gravy several years back. Despite his initial negativity, and several more humphs, he tucked into it as soon as he realised there were no ‘proper’ greens to be had. I’ve learned to love kale, but my dad, like many other countryfolk of his generation, deemed it only fit for animals. Now it has become almost fashionable, especially in its quirkier forms, like ‘Redbor’ and ‘Emerald Ice’, and the one we are focussing on, Cavolo Nero.

Cavolo Nero is also called black cabbage or Tuscan kale, and you may find it listed under Cavolo Laciniato or Nero di Toscana. As you can tell from its name, this kale originates in Italy where it has been grown since the nineteenth century. It has found its way to the UK, however, and due to its hardiness it can be grown just about anywhere.

Cavolo Nero does have a bit of a quirky appearance. I once heard it described as a savoy cabbage that’s been on a diet and is having a bad hair day. True, the leaves have a puckered, almost blistered look, like that of savoy cabbage, but they are much narrower; and because they grow in layers from a central stem the leaves can look a little dishevelled rather than neatly coiffured. Having said all that, I think the plants look very decorative in the veg patch, or indeed in the perennial flower border, especially in winter when the frost has bitten.

Growing Cavolo Nero is much the same as growing any other member of the brassica, or cabbage, family. You can sow seeds outside in June or July in a shallow, pre-watered drill in soil with a fine tilth - the delicate roots of the new seedlings will be far happier without great clods of earth to negotiate. Also make sure you sow them thinly and at the correct depth (about a centimetre). Don’t be in too much of a hurry to get started – wait until the soil is warm enough otherwise the seeds will sit and sulk, and may even rot before they have had time to germinate. Give them a sunny spot, although they can cope with a little shade.

When it comes to soil, all the members of the brassica family will thank you for being planted in a good, fertile, slightly alkaline soil. Club root, the scourge of the brassica family, is a fungal root infection which thrives in acid soil, so applying lime will reduce the chances of getting it, although it won’t eliminate it.

Brassicas are hungry feeders so if you practice crop rotation, plant them in the bed which has had legumes growing in it previously – the nodules on the roots of peas, beans and the like fix nitrogen in the soil which will profit the brassicas to follow. The bed will also benefit from a good dose of well-rotted manure. Beware, though; don’t spread lime and fertiliser at the same time – they will react with one another and cancel out any benefits.

Although Cavolo Nero is a pretty tough customer, and can withstand most onslaughts, there is one pest which will strip your kale and other brassicas during the winter months when other vegetation may be difficult to locate – pesky pigeons. A block of greenstuff in your veg patch will be irresistible to them. Herby, my now deceased border terrier, used to do his best to scare them away, although most of the time they would just sit on the fence blowing pigeon-y raspberries at him.

You will be able to start harvesting leaves from November and, all being well, you will still have some welcome fresh veg in April. Start picking the young leaves from the bottom of the plant to encourage more growth at the top.

The term ‘super food’ is bandied around a little too often these days, I think (all good food is super as far as I’m concerned!) but Cavolo Nero, along with other members of the kale clan, is jam packed with vitamins and minerals. You can find vitamins K, A, C, E and the Bs, as well as manganese, copper, calcium and iron. It’s also a really good source of lutein, an antioxidant. So mum really does know best when she says eat your greens!

Please don’t just boil it up and plonk it on a plate like the school dinner-ladies of my childhood did with the cabbage, after the sulphurous aroma had wafted through the corridors since half past nine in the morning: Cavolo Nero deserves more attention than this. My favourite method is to remove the central stem, finely slice the leafy bit and then stir-fry it, finally dressing it with a little olive oil and a touch of balsamic vinegar. The central stem can be diced and added to a casserole.

Cavolo Nero is also a mainstay of the classic Italian soup-like dish ribollita. Meaning ‘twice cooked’ this concoction of veg and beans should be made one day and reheated the next, by which time all the flavours will have mingled and intensified. It’s gutsy, filling, and cheap food, ideal for when you’ve been working in the garden on a cold but sunny winter day and have worked up an appetite for a warming lunch.

Please Note: This post is not sponsored. Cavolo Nero seeds are available from a range of suppliers.