Friday, October 22, 2010

Colewort and Kale

Collard Profile Collard Seen from Above Sea Kale

The Brassicaceae, or mustard family, contains many vegetables with a long history in the European diet. Cabbage, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower are all forms of a single polymorphic species, Brassica oleracea. Above from right to left: Collard is the closest available approximation to the colewort, the primitive cultivated cabbage of the Middle Ages. The tight, heading cabbages we know today were developed from the colewort. Sea kale (Crambe maritima), which was gathered from the wild, belongs to a separate genus within the Brassica family.  Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

Cabbages and kales have been eaten, improved, and eaten some more for centuries. The medieval cabbage, or colewort, (see the first image for the etymology of “colewort”) was one of the mainstays of the medieval diet, at least for those ordinary mortals outside courtly circles, whose more refined cuisine has been preserved in cookbooks—such as the famous Forme of Cury—of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The greens were cooked and eaten alone, or were included in pottage—sometimes spelled “potage”—a kind of thick soup or porridge made from vegetables boiled with grain. (For a recipe for “Caboches in Pottage,” visit the Gode Cookery website.) It was not necessary to harvest the whole plant; leaves could be plucked from the stem and used as needed; coleworts remained viable well into the winter months.

Bitter and unpalatable in its wild form, cabbage was brought under cultivation in antiquity. In addition to their place in ancient and medieval nutrition, cabbages and kales were valued medicinal plants. Cabbage was said to sharpen the sight, relieve palsy, ease gout, and cleanse ulcers. (For an article on the recent recovery of pills made from common vegetables such as carrots and cabbage from a Roman shipwreck, visit the website of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions.) The Greek tradition that the cabbage was inimical to the grapevine and provided an antidote for drunkenness also survived into the Middle Ages.

Vegetables have changed far more since the Middle Ages than the medicinal plants or wildflowers grown here at The Cloisters, and it is more difficult for us to represent them accurately. The brassicas have changed the most. Our large, tight-heading cabbages do not much resemble the small loose-leaved medieval colewort. Dr. Sylvia Landsberg, an authority on English medieval gardens, relies on American collards as well as non-curly kale in her recreation of a kitchen garden typical of a yeoman’s homestead circa 1500 at Bayleaf in Sussex. We, too, use American collards to stand in for the medieval cabbage in the pottage bed in Bonnefont garden. As Dr. Landsberg rightly says, it is better to approximate the medieval type than to omit so important a plant from a re-creation of a medieval kitchen garden. (See the first image for more about the relationship of collards to coleworts.) A close relative of the cultivated colewort, the beautiful Crambe maritima, or sea kale, is grown in a nearby bed of culinary plants.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Landsberg, Sylvia. Medieval Gardens. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments (1)

  1. Rve Says:

    Renee,I made, what I called Stem and Leaf soup in dbanaunce this past summer using the stem and leaves of cauliflower, as well as kale and chard. I also routinely use kale and chard stems, diced with my mirepoix for my veg soups .I just can’t bare to throw them away, besides it has to add some sort of extra nutrition ..And as far as broccoli stems .I can’t believe people buy broccoli without the long thick stems. for one, I believe stores cut off the stems as the broccoli ages and sell it for more money calling them broccoli florets , so you’re paying more money for a less fresh veg (just my suspicion, I may be wrong ) My favorite way of preparing and eating broccoli stems is to, of course, peel off the outer touch layer, keeping the length of the stem and then cutting them into sticks , same as you would carrot and celery, dipping them in a homemade dressing or spread with a little peanut butter!I have never used the core of my cabbage however! I just assumed it was not desirable. Considering there’s rarely a week that goes by that I don’t eat some sort of slaw 3 -4 times,(I like to call them cabbage salads), it’s not unusual for me to buy one green and one red cabbage and consume them weekly, I’ve never had to throw cabbage away.Since cabbage stores so well I almost always make a cabbage salad when I have to throw together somehting for unexpected guests .I find most people never use this wonderful vegetable for their own homemade salads, using instead (if they even make and eat a salad, lol) the more popular baby greens, or pre packaged baby spinach.

Post a Comment

We welcome your participation! Please note that while lively discussion and strong opinions are encouraged, the Museum reserves the right to delete comments that it deems inappropriate for any reason. Comments are moderated and publication times may vary.