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Are you ready for the sprout drought of 2010?

Byline: Hilarie Stelfox

THE really bad news of the week, I said to The Girl on Monday evening, is not that the country is in desperate financial difficulties or we lost the 2018 World Cup bid to Russia, but something much more dire and immediate.

"Sit down," I said, wanting to break it to her gently - although it was difficult to think of a way to soften what would be a disastrous seasonal blow.

"We might not be able to have any Brussels sprouts this Christmas," I blurted out.

"There, I've said it!" I'd been listening that morning to the predictions on breakfast television of a sprout drought and had waited all day to share this important information because I knew the subject would be dear to her heart.

Secondborn is made of stern stuff but, even so, there was a sticky moment when I thought she might faint with the shock. Then she rallied round.

"Oh no," she said, bravely, "That's a terrible shame."

Like most children, Secondborn is a big fan of sprouts and asks for them with every meal. "Never mind about pudding," she'll say, when I reach for the chocolate profiteroles, "give me more sprouts. I can't resist their brassica goodness and wonderful sulphurous aroma. They are truly the food of the Gods," (or words to that effect).

Actually, as you may have realised, I'm not being entirely truthful. Sprouts have long been viewed by Secondborn as one of the more evil vegetables, possibly the most evil.

Over the years only bribery has persuaded our daughter to entertain even having a sprout upon her dinner plate.

Whether she ate it or not involved protracted negotiation of a kind that would make the diplomatic service proud of us.

"But sprouts are so good for you," we used to say in the warm up to a lecture on their vitamin and anti-oxidant content. "Then why do they make themselves taste so awful," she'd reply. "They're trying to warn us about something."

This, as it turns out, is not as daft as it sounds. In fact, I have discovered that a dislike of bitterness in foods is hard-wired into the DNA of our species. Genetic material sequenced by Italian researchers from the bones of an ancient ancestor who lived 48,000 years ago showed the individual had a gene that caused him or her to shun bitter foods - more precisely foods containing phenylthiocarbamide (PTC). As it turns out, sprouts contain a substance similar to PTC.

Around two-thirds of modern humans still have this gene and it's thought that it gave our predecessors an evolutionary advantage - some poisonous plants contain PTC-type chemicals and also taste bitter.

Which, of course, leaves the other one third of the human race, who have only a recessive variant of the gene and therefore find sprouts and other brassicas much more to their liking. Why they didn't die out from eating poisonous plants is something of a mystery but, looking on the bright side, they're now superbly equipped to enjoy health-giving sulphurous, bitter veggies. Which brings me quite neatly around to the origins of the Brussels sprout itself and how this humble cruciferous vegetable managed to conquer the Christmas dinner tables of Europe and North America.

Not surprisingly, sprouts take their name from the Belgian capital, which was also the sprout capital of the 13th Century. No-one seems to know why the Belgians should have embraced sprouts in such a big way or where the vegetable first came from. China, say some sources, and my money's on that - most things seem to come from China.

Of course, the current sprout shortage, caused by the fact that the frozen crops cannot be harvested mechanically, is terrible news for farmers and the suppliers who rely on Christmas to sell three-quarters of their annual harvest. And, to be absolutely fair, sprouts need not be the evil dinner companion. They only smell bad if over-cooked, when the sulphurous compounds are released, and can be tarted up with all manner of quite tasty things like bacon, chestnuts and butter.

Why, we're even thinking of growing some for next year on our allotment. "Good news," I'll say to The Girl, "we'll be able to guarantee sprouts on our plates throughout the festive season." I bet she can hardly wait.


* NOT TO EVERYONE'S TASTE: But the sprout may be missing from the Christmas dinner table this year
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:Dec 11, 2010
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