Where are the sprouts?

Contrary to what you may think, I actually do have a couple of obligations over here. For my International Issues & the Media class, I had to write a feature analysis about Brussels or Belgium. Unsurprisingly, I made mine about food. To prepare you, here’s a Julie Andrews gif:

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Okay, now check it out:

No dessert for Belgians: Why you shouldn’t look for Brussels sprouts in Belgium’s capital

Funky, abrasive, bitter…Belgian?

There’s a surplus of adjectives to describe them, but when it comes to Brussels sprouts, there isn’t much in a name.

At the heart of the EU, Brussels is the capital of compromise. Contrarily, the Brussels sprout is one of the least agreeable vegetables out there.

When visiting Brussels, one can expect to try a number of traditional Belgian treats: liege waffles, white beers, and frites, to name a few. However, this small cruciferous vegetable likely won’t show up on a tourist’s radar.

I’m a big fan of Brussels sprouts, so I was disappointed when I moved to Belgium and didn’t find them on any menus. Why are Brussels sprouts so uncommon in the city they’re named after?

To answer this question, I stopped by two authentic Belgian restaurants in Brussels, Volle Gas and Belga Queen, to find out why I couldn’t get my Lapin au Kriek with a side of sprouts.

Volle Gas introduced me to local cuisine when I first moved to Belgium. The menu features the full gamut of classic Belgian recipes from gray shrimp salad to stoempe.

When I asked a hostess about the absence of Brussels sprouts on the menu, her facial expression translated to “Why would you expect us to serve them?”

Similarly, Belga Queen only relies on Brussels sprouts in roasted vegetable side dishes. A consultant from the restaurant described them as “special”—which I’m pretty sure was a euphemism.

When hunting for a traditional Belgian Brussels sprout recipe, blogger Sasha Martin made the same observation I did: The road to classic Brussels sprouts does not go through the city they’re named after. The traditional Flemish recipe Martin eventually found lacked personality: steam, sauté in butter, and add some shallot or lemon if you’re feeling frisky.

Evidently, Brussels sprouts don’t rank among typical Belgian ingredients like endive and mussels. So what’s with the name?

My research indicated that there’s no distinct reason for the moniker other than historical record. The first written description of Brussels sprouts was in 1587 near Brussels, but they were likely cultivated in Ancient Rome and introduced to Belgium around 1200. The slow-growing plant likes cool, wet environments, and since Brussels is one of the rainiest cities in Europe, the Flanders region is ideal.

Today 90 percent of Belgian-produced Brussels sprouts are frozen and exported, according to Bart Debussche, a policy advisor for the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. Debussche says he rarely serves Brussels sprouts at his family’s dinner table.

“I have three boys who will eat them, but not with enthusiasm,” he said. “Based on my own opinion of them growing up, I’m not surprised.”

For many, the name “Brussels sprouts” conjures up memories of peering across a plate of boiled, slimy, downright disagreeable green orbs while Mom watches intently to make sure they don’t get passed along to the dog.

Personally, even dessert wasn’t incentive enough for me to finish my sprouts when I was growing up.

These pungent memories follow the old joke: What’s the difference between boogers and Brussels sprouts? Kids will eat boogers.

This cabbage cousin has as about as many potential descriptors as it does layers, and most of them have polarity that’s reflective of the public opinion of Brussels sprouts.

BelOrta, a vegetable auction company in Mechelen, sold around 20 percent of Belgian-grown Brussels sprouts last year. According to company spokesman Luc Peeters, most of the company’s customers are home cooks, but he thinks diners will begin to see more Brussels sprouts on Belgian restaurant menus in coming years.

“Some star chefs are introducing it again as part of their ‘back to grandmother’s kitchen’ trend,” Peeters said.

A similar rebranding is occurring on the American food scene, where Brussels sprouts are commonly paired with an equally characterful flavor: bacon.

However in the UK, the world’s largest producer of Brussels sprouts, tradition claims a front row seat for the vegetable at Christmas dinner.

The common theme throughout my exploration of the Brussels’ sprout scene was that people’s opinions were governed by their interpretation of the vegetable’s eccentricity and the nostalgia it provoked, rather than by culture or geography. The Brussels sprout took the city’s name, but not an accompanying Belgian identity.

Whether you call it tangy or tartaric, distinctive or offensive, yucky or yummy, you probably shouldn’t call a Brussels sprout “Belgian.”

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