Daubenton’s kale – growing and cooking

Daubenton’s kale (Brassica oleracea var ramosa) is a perennial vegetable that seems to have everything going for it: tasty, hardy, productive and easy to grow.

I also grow nine-star perennial broccoli (Brassica oleracea botrytis aparagoides – actually a sprouting cauliflower) which is often touted as a perennial, but really it’s just a biennial that manages to hang on for a few more years if you zealously remove all the flowers. Daubenton’s, on the other hand, is the real deal, a perennial kale that usually lives for 5 or 6 years.

It seems that a lot more kales used to be perennial, but Victorian seed companies selected for biennialism in order to be able to sell the same variety year on year. A few old varieties have hung on by being passed from gardener to gardener, leading to a plethora of names such as Ragged Jack, tree collards, Woburn kale, Taunton Deane and many others which may or may not be the same as each other. Worse, some biennial varieties share a name with perennial ones having been bred from them. My all-time-favourite biennial kale is Pentland Brig; there’s a rumour of a perennial version out there which I dearly hope is true. In Germany there’s an ehwiger kohl (‘everlasting kale’ or, as Google Translate charmingly puts it, ‘eternal carbon’).

The bargain that Daubenton’s makes for its long life is that it is lived in complete celibacy. It is hardly ever known to flower [but see The Joy of Promiscuity], which means that it doesn’t exhaust itself, but adds a problem for the gardener: no flowers means no seeds, perhaps giving one reason why it is so rare. Fortunately, it is extremely easy to propagate from stem cuttings, particularly if you break off branches near the base. You’ll find some knobbles which are incipient roots. At most times of year you can plant cuttings or put them in water and the roots will start to grow. In autumn, Daubenton’s undergoes a brief hiatus when it slows its growth and sheds a lot (but by no means all) of its leaves. I’ve noticed that at this point its capacity to grow from cuttings is much reduced, so if you have failed to get them to root at this time of year, don’t give up. Another method is to layer branches by bending them down and burying a section. Over time the buried section will develop roots and make a new plant.

I got my first Daubentons in 2009 from Pépinière Eric Deloulay in France. He’ll deliver to the UK but there doesn’t seem to be an English version of the website, so you’ll have to scrape your secondary-school French back together or Google Translate it and run the risk of buying some eternal carbon by mistake. I got two versions, one green one with a red tinge to the leaves and another, variegated, one with larger leaves. The Agroforestry Research Trust now sell the non-variegated variety and Pennard Plants have both kinds. Cotswold Garden Flowers sell the variegated form (plants simply disappear from their list if they are sold out, so if it’s not there, that’s what happened). I’m often asked about suppliers in the US and Australia. I haven’t managed to track any down, but if you’re a supplier, or know of one, anywhere outside Europe, let me know and I would be happy to put up a link. If you are in the States, you might like to look at the ‘Kosmic Kale’ supplied by the Territorial Seed Company. This claims to be a new variety but it certainly walks and quacks like variegated Daubenton’s.

My original plants have now all died out but they have given rise to several generations of successors. A mature plant typically makes a dome about one metre high and wide and lasts for about 5 years. Winter hardiness seems to reduce with age and I usually lose some older plants over winter, but taking cuttings or allowing plants to self-layer seems to reset the clock. The worst cold my plants have had to face was -15°C one year, which they did with aplomb.

I have planted cuttings in various positions in sun and part shade (under an apple tree) and they have thrived in all of them. This ability to tolerate shade makes them ideal for my forest garden set up. They are also said to be very tolerant of soil conditions.

I use Daubenton’s pretty much wherever I would use an annual kale, in soups, stews and stir-fries.  In summer I mostly use it as a pot-herb, usually in a 50-50 mixture with sea beet. The kale takes longer to become tender than the beet, so you have to make sure it is cooked enough. In winter the leaves become sweeter and tenderer, enough that I start to use them in salads too. They are also ideal for kale chips (i.e. crisps).

Incidentally, Daubenton’s kale was named after the great French naturalist Jean-Louis-Marie Daubenton, a man who has had to suffer the posthumous indignity of English speakers constantly sticking an apostrophe into his name in order to make it look more French, so you’ll often find the plant referred to as D’Aubenton’s kale or even chou D’Aubenton. It’s also sometimes seen as ‘Dorbenton’, which seems to be an English phonetic spelling.

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Sorrels

Sorrel is a perennial vegetable that takes me back to my childhood. Roaming the hills above our house, thirsty from having forgotten to take water, I would seek out the apple-green leaves of Rumex acetosa. They did nothing to really stop me getting dehydrated I’m sure, but the rush of saliva brought on by the acid taste always made me feel better. We called them souries (pronounced soor-eez) from the sour taste, but the more widespread name is common sorrel.

Sorrel is a taste-name rather than a strictly botanical one: the various plants that are called sorrel are not all related but do all share that same sharpness, produced by the oxalic acid in the leaves. The oxalic acid means that it isn’t wise to eat sorrel in large quantities as it binds up calcium and can cause deficiencies, as well as contributing to diseases like gout. In small quantities however it is fine and in fact there is a small amount of oxalic acid in many accepted food plants including spinach and rhubarb.

Common sorrel

Several of the sorrels are in the Rumex genus. Sheep’s sorrel, R. acetosella, is tasty but probably too small to be worth cultivating deliberately. Buckler-leaved sorrel, R. scutatus, is also small-leaved but very productive and the leaves with their cool shape look great in a salad. My old friend common sorrel, R. acetosa, is the one that gardeners have paid most attention to and there are many cultivated forms, bred for larger leaves, mostly going by names like French sorrel and Polish sorrel. There is also a non-seeding form called ‘Profusion’ which is available from Poyntzfield Herb Nursery – ideal as it puts all its energy into producing leaves.

Buckler-leaved sorrel

Other sorrel-tasting plants are in the genus of Oxalis. I don’t know whether Linnaeus named the genus after the acid or whether it is the other way around. Oxalis is a huge genus with around 800 species, variously known as sorrels (which they aren’t), shamrocks (which they aren’t) and grasses (which they aren’t). Confused? You will be with common names.

As an aside, the genus includes Oxalis tuberosa or oca, an important root crop in the Andes which could also be grown here if only they could find a day-neutral variety. As it is, it only starts to form tubers when the day length drops below a certain critical number of hours, fine for the Andes but not much use in a climate where the first frosts might well be in September. I grew it productively for several years until an early frost wiped out the lot. All is not lost, however: it was the same story with the original potato until a mutation made it day-neutral and allowed it to conquer the world.

The only Oxalis I have in my forest garden is O. acetosella, the native wood sorrel. It is not very productive so it is more of a curiosity than an important part of my diet. As well as being eaten the leaves can be dried and used to make a tea. There is even apparently a sorrel tree, Oxydendrum arboreum, which is a member of the heath family, but a whole tree of sorrel might be too much of a good thing.

I mostly use sorrel chopped into a salad, but its most traditional use is in sorrel soup, particularly in Eastern Europe, where it is sometimes known as green borscht. Here’s my favourite sorrel soup recipe.

Ingredients
oil
1 onion, 1 clove garlic, chopped
1 potato, cut up small
600 ml stock (1 pint)
1 handful sorrel leaves, chopped
optional: 1 egg, beaten

Fry the onion in the oil until soft, then add the garlic and the potato and fry for a couple minutes more before adding the stock. The stock can be whatever kind you like: chicken is traditional but I use vegetable. Bring to the boil and add the sorrel leaves, which will immediately lose their bright green colour and go much darker. Cook for around 10 minutes until the potatoes are soft, then blend and serve hot or cold.

The size of the handful of sorrel leaves depends on how sour you want it to be. One hundred grammes (4oz) or more will give give it a good bite; 50g (2 oz) will give a hint of sorrel that slowly grows on the back of your tongue as you work your way through a bowl, an effect that I quite enjoy.

For a twist, you can add a beaten egg at the end, cooking for a few more minutes, which gives the soup a lot of body. Serve with a hard-boiled egg or a dollop of sour cream (the mallow flower isn’t strictly necessary, but there were lots of them growing next to the sorrel patch).

Growing and eating garlic mustard

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a phenomenally successful plant. In its native range it grows from Ireland to China and from Africa to Scandinavia. In North America, where it is introduced, it is frankly rather too successful. Unpalatable to native grazers and naturally vigorous, it has become a serious invasive pest. As well as taking up space, it produces chemicals which interfere with the native mycorrhizae and sets a nasty ecological trap for a native butterfly. The caterpillars of some species of garden white butterfly naturally feed on toothwort (Dentaria). Unfortunately, garlic mustard looks very like toothwort and the butterflies are suckered into laying their eggs on it. When the larvae hatch, they are unable to digest the garlic mustard and soon die.

In its native range, garlic mustard (a.k.a. hedge garlic, Jack by the hedge and sauce alone) is much better behaved and an excellent candidate for the forest garden. Every part of it is edible, including roots, leaves, flowers and young seed pods. Flavour-wise, it does what it says on the tin, tasting like a cross between garlic and mustard. The roots are the hottest part, with a horseradish-like bite.

Garlic mustard is quite early to come into leaf and the youngest leaves are the mildest, so it’s a useful winter/spring green. As the year goes on the leaves get hotter and a bit acrid. I use them in salads and as a pot herb and often stick a leaf or two into sandwiches. There are much more imaginative ways to use it than this however. The one upside of the garlic mustard invasion of North America is that people have put some serious effort into finding ways to cook them in an effort to eat the interloper into submission.

Pesto seems to be a favourite, with the oily ingredients acting to balance the mustardiness. One recipe combines the pesto with green lentils and one particularly adventurous one throws in the roots for good measure. Garlic mustard roulade wins my prize for the most beautiful recipe and one person has even pickled the roots which must taste amazing.

Garlic mustard is a biennial, growing lots of leaf in its first year then running to seed in its second. It is a very vigorous seeder, so unless you want to end up feeling like North America, I suggest that you pull up most of the plants in the second year and just leave a few to provide the next generation. Be prepared to treat it as a weed in the rest of the garden and hoe it out ruthlessly if it seeds beyond where you want it. It is shade tolerant, growing in either full or partial shade (under a Victoria plum in my case) and not fussy as to soil.

Rhubarb and elderflower jam, and a surprise

Rhubarb is the one perennial vegetable that needs no introduction. Everyone must have a patch in the corner of their garden, even if it was planted by their granny and hasn’t been used since. It is long-lived and practically bomb-proof and it just goes on and on.

Most years my rhubarb patch doesn’t see a lot of use. One year I actually managed to set up a barter system with my local shop, swapping rhubarb and courgettes for bread, but then the ownership of the shop changed. More recently our community centre cafe has been using some of it, but I must confess to a bit of a history of neglect.

Fortunately, neglect is exactly what rhubarb thrives on and it points up a general advantage of perennial veg: if you don’t use them then they can store up the resources and become stronger plants. The yield is not totally lost as it is with annual veg.

This year, since so many of the fruits have done badly in the cold spring, I’m taking a little more interest in my rhubarb, so I called my mother, who is, in her own words, a ‘heavy user’ of the stuff. I remember most of her recipes from childhood: rhubarb crumble, rhubarb pies, rhubarb jams, rhubarb chutney and, best of all, a big stick of fresh rhubarb dipped in a bowl of sugar and eaten straight. There was even a surprisingly nice rhubarb wine.

To this day I don’t like crumble, but the rhubarb pies were wonderful, especially when left for a couple of days and served cold, with the rhubarb juices soaked a way into the pastry. However, it was the jam I wanted to try, particularly one of my mum’s specialities, rhubarb and elderflower. Here’s the recipe (adapted a little to cater for my preference for less-sweet jams).

rhubarb jam

Ingredients
3 kg rhubarb
1.5 kg sugar
10 elder flowers
Juice of 2 lemons
Makes 10 jars

Wash the rhubarb stems and cut off the leaves and the stem bases. Cut them into chunks about 2 cm long (use a sharp knife or you’ll find you don’t get all the way through the skin). Put the chunks into a bowl in layers, adding a little sugar over each layer and putting in the elder flowers head-down before doing the last layer. Pour the rest of the sugar over the top and leave overnight.

The next day you will find that the sugar has drawn the juice out of the rhubarb and the chunks are floating in syrup. Try not to let your children steal too many of these. Take the flowers out and steep them in water to make an instant cordial. Then boil up the jam in the usual way. Between the rhubarb and the lemon, this jam will set well so there is no need to overdo the cooking.

As this is a low-sugar jam, it is best kept in the fridge once opened, but it will store quite happily for years unopened. For better storage once opened, use equal amounts of rhubarb and sugar.

Elder is a tree with so many uses that I’ll have to give it a post of its own some day. It is so abundant that I prefer to forage it rather than have it take up space in my forest garden. I went down to our local park and selected ten choice blossoms; elder flowers have a rather nasty taste if you don’t get them at the right point, so each bloom got a sniff test to make sure it had that heady scent of summer. It’s the ones that look like they are almost over that are usually the best, not the pristine white new ones.

I also found a pleasant bonus while I was investigating the elders: they were full of jelly ear fungi (Auricularia auricula-judae, also known as Jews’ ears in a bit of traditional European prejudice). Jelly ears never found much favour in European cookery (one online description says that eating them is ‘like chewing on a piece of inner tube’) but Chinese cuisine has got a use for them: they are sliced thinly into stir fries to provide a mild flavour and a bit of a crunch. They can even be dried and rehydrated for the purpose.

Rhubarb in the forest garden

The scientific naming of rhubarb is a bit of a mess: you can choose between Rheum rhabarbarum, Rheum x hybridum or Rheum x cultorum. Rheum rhaponticum may refer to cultivated rhubarb or to another, closely related species. There are at least 2 other species of Rheum worth trying: Himalayan rhubarb (R. australe) is said to taste like apple and Chinese rhubarb or da huang (R. palmatum), like gooseberry. I’ve got both on order so I can let you know whether I agree.

Technically, it isn’t the stem of rhubarb that we eat but the petiole, the leaf-stem. The true stem only comes later, when the rhubarb flowers. A persistent myth about rhubarb is that it is poisonous after flowering: perhaps this came about from people trying to eat the flowering stem rather than the petioles. The part that definitely is poisonous is the leaf and there is another myth which says that you shouldn’t put them on the compost heap as they will poison it. In fact the poisonous compound is an acid which quickly breaks down in compost and is then completely harmless. A little-known fact is that you can also eat the flowers of rhubarb.

Rhubarb grows well in a forest garden. It doesn’t like full shade and shouldn’t be grown under another plant, but it is quite happy to be surrounded by taller plants which shade it for parts of the day.

Edible flowers

One of the most striking things about growing food with forest gardening is how many flowers end up on your plate. When you think about it though, the stranger thing is perhaps why this part of the plant has been neglected in our cookery for so long (apart from immature flowers like cauliflowers and artichokes). After all, plants are pretty keen on producing them and there is a massive industry dedicated to breeding and growing them for non-edible purposes.

Recently, the balance seems to have shifted and there is a bit of a fashion for eating flowers. There’s a good, comprehensive article on the subject here. However, a lot of this is driven by the search for novelty in fancy restaurants or is based on picking a few flowers off basically ornamental species to decorate a dish. There is a much shorter list of flowers that can really be considered as crops in themselves, either because they are so productive that they are worth growing as the main yield or because they are a by-product of a plant that is cropped for some other part. My short list is: day lilies, bellflowers, salsify, pot marigold, king’s spear, alliums, mallow, courgette, peas, runner bean, nasturtium, dandelion and (maybe) tiger lily and golden currant.

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis)

Day lilies, salsify and bellflowers are the three most productive: best fried, steamed and in salads respectively. All three illustrate an important point about eating flowers: the more you pick, the more you have of them. For a plant, a flower is just a means to an end: getting pollinated and producing seeds. Once that has been achieved it rapidly switches its resources to the growing fruit or seed head and stops flowering, but if you frustrate its ambitions it will often keep on trying, sometimes for the rest of the year.

Pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) are not bulk producers like the last three, but a small patch will produce a lot of flowers over the course of a summer. It is the petals that are used: they add a subtle but interesting flavour and an entirely unsubtle, cheerful colour to practically any dish. Perhaps they are best regarded as a herb. They are equally good raw in a salad or cooked in almost anything and unlike most flowers they keep their colour no matter how much you cook them. On top of this they are famously good for the health of the garden, producing chemicals that kill or repel little parasitic worms called nematodes. This combination of qualities, plus their relative ease of growing, wins them a place in my garden.

Allium moly

Golden garlic (Allium moly)

The alliums or onions are a group with too many edible species to even list. They are often grown for their leaves or bulbs but the flowers are usually edible too and they are often available when the rest of the plant has either died down or become woody. Chives (A. schoenoprasum) are one that I use a lot. Like all alliums, its flowers are borne on little stems radiating from a central point. The trick to using it is to get your thumbnail into this central point and nip it out, causing an explosion of little pink florets. Chive flowers are mild enough for salads. Wild garlic (A. ursinum) can also be used but has a much stronger, more garlicky flavour. Golden garlic (A. moly) hardly looks like an allium at all, with relatively few flowers per head and those bright yellow. The flowers add a sweet oniony flavour to a salad and the leaves and bulbs can be used too. Round-headed leek (A. sphaerocephalon) has huge, showy balls of edible flowers.

Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)

Common mallow has the advantage that it will grow in the shade. It’s an all-round useful plant that I’ve already written about here.

Across in the annual garden, courgettes (or zucchini if you prefer) are already moderately well known, especially frittered. Sometimes the baby courgette is harvested along with the flower but if you’re careful you can break the flower off the end of the fruit before it wilts, allowing you to both have your courgette and eat it(s flower).

Courgette (Curcurbita pepo ovifera)

Other annual crops that have unexpectedly edible flowers are mangtout peas, sugar snap peas and runner beans. The runners in particular are delicious and mine always produce far more flowers than they are capable of ripening into pods, so a little thinning does no harm at all. Don’t be deceived by appearances though: sweet peas (Lathyrus odorata) are not edible.

Pea flowers (Pisum sativum)

Another annual famed for its edible flowers is the nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus – a bit confusingly, Nasturtium as a Latin name refers to water cress, not nasturtiums.) Every part of the nasturtium is edible, with a hot, cress/pepper flavour. In fact they are too strong for me – the only way I like to use them is to pickle the seeds and use them like capers – but if you like a cress flavour then this is the plant for you.

I don’t plant dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) in the forest garden but, as you’d expect, I have them anyway. In fact they’re a fairly low level weed in the forest garden, so in contrast to my zero-tolerance approach in the annual beds I’m fairly lax about pulling them out, happy to make occasional use of the spring leaves and flowers in the meantime. Dandelion flowers should be cooked, preferably in ways that either exploit their bitterness or minimise it with a starchy component. Fritters and bhajis are good, or you could try the spicy fried dandelion recipe I found on a rather good blog by Ciaran Burke in Ireland.

Finally, a couple I haven’t tried yet but have high hopes for. Golden currant (Ribes aureum) has very pretty flowers which are said to be edible. It is closely related to buffalo currant (Ribes odoratum), which grows well here, so I’ve ordered some and expect them to thrive. Then there is tiger lily (Lilium linifolium). I am already growing this for its edible bulbs but I found out recently that the flower is edible too, with some very enthusiastic reports online. On the other hand, Plants for a Future list the pollen as poisonous, which could make eating the flowers a delicate business. More research, as they say, is needed.

Turkish rocket

With an exotic name like Turkish rocket, you would expect Bunias orientalis to be a bit more than a perennial version of broccoli, but that is what it is.

According to Ken Fern of Plants for a Future, ‘the cooked leaves make an excellent vegetable’. I’m afraid I can’t agree. To me, the leaves have an odd bitterness which is capable of spoiling an entire dish. I find a number of plants that Ken Fern recommends too bitter for my taste; I don’t know whether I’m just a fussy eater or whether there is some side effect of growing plants a few hundred miles further north.

The parts of Turkish rocket that I use are the immature flowering stems, like sprouting broccoli (I call them ‘rockoli’). They have an unusual, slightly shellfish-like flavour that at first I found frankly disturbing in a plant, but I have come to like it and now look forward to the rockoli season keenly. They stir fry well, or are very tasty steamed with a dressing of soy sauce, apple juice, lemon juice, vegetable oil and a few drops of sesame oil. Another way I have cooked them is in a white sauce with a little cheese and mustard.

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Turkish rocket illustrates well why you shouldn’t be too quick to give up on a plant. I almost wrote it off after trying the leaves, then discovered the rockolis but found it a rather unproductive plant. More recently I have discovered that it is much more productive if you pick a good long stem along with the flower head. Not only is the stem  soft and tasty, this method also seems to have the advantage that it prompts the plant to produce another – and another – crop of large flower stems. If you just pick the tip of the stem then the result will be a great mass of thin side shoots which rapidly become too spindly and fiddly to deal with.

TR is the yellow-flowered one under the raspberries

Eventually however, Turkish rocket will get away from you and start to flower. This then attracts clouds of hoverflies which are good for keeping down pests like greenfly.

If you allow Turkish rocket to seed, you will probably find that it self-seeds quite happily. I usually chop it down after flowering to avoid that, but if you find yourself with more plants than you really intended, you might want to try a final harvest: the grated roots have a horseradish-like flavour; not quite so strong as horseradish but pleasantly spicy.

Turkish rocket is a very easy plant. It’s easy to raise and easy to grow. Its deep tap roots which scavenge water and nutrients from deep in the soil and its strong spring growth mean that it never needs weeded or watered. It’s untroubled by diseases in my garden: my plants are over ten years old and look like they plan to go on for ever. It seems unfussy about soil. In my garden it thrives in the dappled shade under an apple tree but would grow well in full sun too.

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Salsify

Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) is a member of the daisy family traditionally grown as a root vegetable, but I find its uses in the forest garden are much more varied than that. Its natural habitat is by the sea and it won’t grow in deep shade, but it seems very happy to seed itself around the more open parts of the garden. It’s a biennial and dies after its seeding year, but it self seeds so effectively that once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. The seedlings are very tolerant of being transplanted, which is handy if you want to do a bit of rearranging it from where it has offered to grow. On top of their edible uses their deep tap roots mean that they probably act as dynamic accumulators, bringing nutrients up from deeper in the soil.

The leaves of salsify make a handy early salad and a component of forest garden spinach, but my favourite part is definitely the flower buds. I pick them just as they are about to open (or even a little after), put them in boiling water and cook for a couple of minutes. I then drain them and add a little oil, lemon juice and salt. They taste a bit like artichoke hearts and make a nice side dish, especially with a mezze-type meal.

One slightly alarming feature of salsify is the gush of milky latex from its stem when you break it. If this is allowed to get on anything else it turns brown and clarts it irremovably. Fortunately it washes off very easily while still wet and doesn’t produce any more after the first rush, so I simply gather a handful at a time then wash the ends under the allotment tap before I put it into anything.

So long as you keep it picked, salsify has a long productive season, but if you stop picking it will successfully set seed and stop flowering. It makes a large, dandelion-like seed head with substantial seeds. These can be harvested for sprouting or for seeding into new parts of the garden.