As a food writer I often take inspiration from the seasonal produce available at the local market. Even the early months offer Jerusalem artichoke, rhubarb and Seville oranges, lifting tired culinary spirits after the long haul of winter and raising hopes for the abundance to come. Sadly nature has other ideas as we head into March – traditionally known as the famine month amongst growers – and the hiatus continues until the arrival of asparagus in the middle of April. (I caught my first glimpse of British asparagus today). These days we can access bounty from all over the world – widening our repertoire massively. But amongst all these exotic temptations there are still a few gems of our own waiting to be rediscovered.
One vegetable available most of the year round is the much maligned cauliflower. Seen as a vehicle for a rich cheese sauce rather than the star of a dish, the good old cauli seems to trigger a bored reaction from many cooks. It has been part of the European diet since at least the 12th century and may even receive a mention from Pliny the Elder in his 6th century book, Natural History. Though the cyma he documents may have actually been a reference to it’s greener relative sprouting broccoli.
So what can be done with this very British staple? Early ancestors of our modern cauliflower cheese can be found in a medieval recipe for cauliflower boiled in milk and topped with cream, nutmeg and mace. Many go on to suggest soaking the head in a brine solution before boiling whole. This would then be served lathered with butter and a dusting of nutmeg, believed to be a favourite for King Louis XIV. It is thought that the brine had less to do with flavour than it did the removal of creepy crawlies hiding amongst the florets. In her book, Food in England, Dorothy Hartley also suggests that the leaves of make an excellent side dish of their own.
The cauliflower made it’s way into European diets via the Assyrian Empire and suits the strong, punchy flavours of the region perfectly. Roasted with cumin seeds and chillies, scattered with toasted almonds it makes a wonderful warm salad. Stir in some chickpeas and dress with olive oil, vinegar and chopped herbs and you have an excellent vegetarian main meal. So go ahead, pick up a humble cauli this week and make a meal fit for a (French) king.