One of the most wonderful things about living in Cornwall is the clean air, fresh with the aroma of gorse and ozone and sparkling with salt crystals. However, at this time of year there is always a hint of something a little less pleasant on the breeze; the unmistakeable scent of decay as acres of cauliflowers sit rotting in the fields.
This is a subject close to my heart (and my nostrils) as our garden is bordered by farmland and much of that farmland has been given over to cauliflower this year and much of that crop is rotting away in the fields.
There are many and complex reasons for this waste and it is too easy to simply point the finger of blame without thinking it through. Does responsibility lie with the supermarkets for refusing to accept all but the most perfect of vegetables? Or are we to blame for choosing the whitest cauliflowers in the store and leaving the yellowing ones to one side. One thing is sure – if we won’t buy it the supermarkets won’t buy it either and they will pass the problem down the line to the supplier.
So, is it the farmers’ fault? This year’s constant rain and warm weather has caused problems for lots of vegetable crops. Cauliflowers have grown too quickly, were ready when the shops didn’t want them and were too big / too yellow / too knobbly by time they did want them. It costs a farmer money to harvest a crop and if he/she has no buyer then it is simply cheaper to leave them in the ground and eventually plough them back in as fertiliser.
So, what can be done?
At a meta level think about your contribution to global warming – adverse weather conditions are not going to get better any time soon but it may be possible to affect them by changing our behaviour.
In some parts of the country “gleaning networks” work with farmers to pick unwanted crops and supply food banks with food for distribution but as these schemes rely on volunteers they don’t operate everywhere. You could consider joining in.
Supermarkets will follow consumer demand (although sometimes they create demand too). Be less picky about what you buy and they will be less picky too. This week Asda announced that they would be selling a wonky veg box for £3.50 which is a sign that they are listening to consumers although I am not sure how much it helps the farmer.
Better still, buy locally and support local shops and farmers. One of our local veg shops was initially started by a farming couple to provide an outlet for the vegetables that didn’t make the grade and they still sell their own excess and excess from other farms. Farmers selling from a trailer in a lay-by are cutting out the contrary middle man which reduces waste and saves you money – try to support them.
Buy and eat veg in season so that there is sufficient demand for local crops. It’s not fair to complain about rotting cauliflowers if you are eating veg that has been imported from Peru.
But enough of the lecture. The upside of the neglected field of cauliflowers is that we have been eating a lot of (ahem) “free” cauli recently. When you eat a lot of something you have to get creative to avoid getting bored. And believe me, cauliflower is an incredibly versatile vegetable. I love simple steamed cauliflower as a side dish and we kind of worship at the alter of cauliflower cheese fairly regularly in this house but there’s so much more that can be done.
A current favourite is cauliflower steaks. Cut slices, an inch (2.5 cm) or so wide, from the centre of the cauliflower. Cook over a low heat in a little olive oil until tender and browned on both sides. They taste nutty and wonderful and you can add whatever flavours you like; a little parmesan, some pesto or chimichurri perhaps. If you are a vegetarian they make a great meat substitute and, because you need to cut them with a knife and fork and chew each mouthful properly, they are really satisfying to eat.
Don’t waste the rest of the cauliflower, you can add it (stalks and all) to a stew or a curry or make soup with it if you prefer. We love cauliflower and gorgonzola soup (before you turn your nose up it’s not a million miles away from the classic broccoli and Stilton) but if blue cheese is not your thing try flavouring your soup with ground cumin and coriander.
Something magical happens if you whizz cauliflower florets up in a food processor. You get a kind of cauliflower “snow”. You can eat this as it is in salads or you can put it in a suitable bowl and microwave it for 4-5 minutes (for one whole, medium cauliflower). You now have a wonderful grain-free alternative to rice or couscous. Add some fresh herbs, tomatoes and onion and you have something approximating tabbouleh.
Better still, you can take your microwaved cauliflower snow, mix it with cheese and egg, bake it and you have a kind of cauliflower flat bread, perfect for dunking in your soup or for eating hot with dips. Top the “bread” with tomato sauce and cheese and you have a cauliflower based pizza (recipe here).
So, all I am asking is that you think about where your food comes from, buy local and fill your face with wonderful seasonal vegetable. Is that too much to ask?