Hail the Conquering Cabbage

Hail the Conquering Cabbage

Roman soldierCabbage

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

And if the sea were boiling hot, wouldn’t it be perfect for cooking cabbage? Pigs with wings though would make bringing home the bacon a little more challenging. But Lewis Carroll’s Walrus and Carpenter were more concerned with exotic oysters than humdrum cabbage, so let’s leave Alice in Looking Glass Land for now. Instead, let us ask a hackneyed question. What have the Romans ever given us?  The answer is cabbage; that’s what.  The dependable mainstay of Irish cuisine for generations, the faithful companion of bacon and spuds, the dreaded green sludge for some and the crisp, aromatic delicacy for others depending upon the sensitivity of the cook.  How could the land of the capsicum and the aubergine have visited such a culinary nightmare, mind you indirectly, on a country not predisposed to sympathetically cooking its greens?

A prehistoric vegetable, cabbage was gathered in the wild until we decided that a pastoral life would be preferable to a wandering one.  In the five to seven million year history of humanity domesticated crops are a very recent development when you consider that we only started cultivating food deliberately a mere 11,000 years ago. Stone-age hunter gatherers would have been as puzzled at the sight of cultivated fields as medieval cooks would have been at the sight of a microwave oven. Of course the ancient practice of foraging has metamorphosed into a middle-class hobby in Ireland in recent years, the big difference being though that 2015 foragers who return home with an empty basket will not starve.  Okay, so cabbage is not one of the ‘big three’ crops – maize, rice, wheat – that set us on the road to being the workable models we are today, but it has earned itself a quirky notoriety in culinary history.

As with most vegetables, we wouldn’t recognise a cabbage in its earliest form as it didn’t have a head, and looked more like a curly kale.  It was not until the 1st century BC, that the first headed cabbage was reported – imagine the frisson among the foodies of the day.  It also boasted a rather romantic pedigree, the Ancient Greeks believing that cabbages sprung from the tears of Lycurgus, father of Sparta.

Loving food as much as conquest, the Romans introduced a profusion of fruit, vegetables and herbs to Britain, cultivating them in magnificent villa gardens over their three -hundred year occupation.  Along with their armies and their roads, the Romans also liked their vegetables to be big, Pliny the Elder referring to cabbages with 12″ diameter heads.

Apicius, the most infamous Roman cook of the 1st century AD, was a great man for experimenting with exotic ingredients.  While Pliny tells us that Apicius invented dishes of flamingo tongues and mullet livers, he was also not averse to including the cabbage in his recipes.  He used cabbage shoots, prepared with a variety of highly spiced sauces, culinary light years removed one suspects, from the regulation pasty dressing garnishing its Irish descendants.  It is said that Apicius spent 100 million sesterces on food, which eventually exhausted his fortunes. Unable to indulge his extravagant appetites anymore, he chose to commit suicide by poisoning himself rather than eat like a peasant.

After a settling in period of three hundred years many Roman vegetables became naturalised in Britain, their cultivation surviving the ‘looting, pillaging, plundering’ of the new kingpins; the Saxons. One of these vegetables was our friend the cabbage, and it was the establishment of the monasteries that ensured the continued cultivation of vegetables in Anglo-Saxon Britain.  St. Jerome urges young monks to ‘hoe your ground, set out cabbages, and convey water to them in conduits.’  In the fifteenth century, Master John Gardener’s poem, The Feate of Gardening, describes what should be grown in the kitchen garden.  Cabbage was held in such high esteem by Gardener, who managed the kitchen gardens of Windsor Castle, that he devotes a special section to wortys, as it was called then, advising sowing for spring, summer and winter varieties to maintain a steady supply, and reminding us that it is appreciated at the tables of both rich and poor:

“Wurtys we must have
Both to Mayster & to knave
Ye schul have mynde here
To have wurtys yong all tyme of ye yere
Every moneth hath his name
To set & sow without any blame.”

Cabbage was highly regarded by the Romans and the Greeks not only as a culinary delight, but also for its medicinal properties. Pliny talks about the healing properties of cabbage leaves or juice applied externally, while in the middle ages cabbage plasters were being used as a remedy for sciatica and varicose ulcers.  Red cabbage was one ingredient in the futile potion concocted to apparently save victims of rabid dog bites or fungi poisoning. Cabbage was also valued as a treatment for failing eyesight and debilitating coughs.  Its close relation, lettuce, was used as a cure for insomnia; making sense of the soporific affect Mr McGregor’s lettuce had on those greedy little rabbits in The Tales of Beatrix Potter! By the eighteenth century, cabbages were an important part of a ship’s supplies, the vitamin C helping to stave off scurvy.  On Captain Cook’s first voyage the ship’s doctor used compresses of cabbage to prevent gangrene in sailors’ wounds.

But to return to the Romans who started this whole cabbage lark in the first place; they believed that eating cabbage before a party would prevent a hangover, putting an entirely different light on the ‘hair of the dog’ cure of a cold cabbage sandwich and a pint of stout. Considering that; the philosopher Diogenes, must have been one major party animal since his staple diet consisted entirely of cabbage and water.

A shorter version of this was broadcast on Sunday Miscellany RTE Radio 1 on Sunday May 12th 2002.

Copyright Berni Dwan 2002, 2015 http://www.oldfilibuster.com