There are those moments when you see something and you think, can it be? Is it…? No, it can’t be… Oh, my gosh. YES IT IS.
I experienced these feelings the other day while pottering around Stroud Farmers’ Market of a Saturday, as is my wont. I noticed a stall I hadn’t registered before, and wandered over to assess the produce.
And that’s when I saw the seakale.
Seakale. Oh my heavens, I can’t think of the last time I clapped eyes on those unmistakable slender, wan stalks with little frills of vestigial leaves at the top. Seakale, the lost glory among vegetables. Seakale that John Evelyn described ‘as very delicate’, that Carême extolled as ‘very appetiting’ and Jane Grigson saw as ‘very English’.
Seakale, for those who don’t know, was a great favourite of those supreme veg gardeners, the Victorians. It started off life in the wild. Crambe maritima, to give it its official name, grows naturally in the shingle along the coast. It’s too bitter to eat if allowed to flourish in full sunlight. But heap the shingle up around the plant, cutting off the sunlight, and you drastically reduce the bitterness, turning an inedible wild thing into a vegetable of mild beauty. It wasn’t long before Victorian gardeners were growing the stuff under cloches to feed the households of the well-to-do.
Since its Victorian heyday seakale has become rarer than the natterjack toad, booming bittern or even British lop pig. Very, very occasionally boxes used to crop up in specialist greengrocers, and if I was lucky to come across one and feeling in funds (rarely, I’d treat myself to a few stems and eat them with due ceremony and appreciation, steamed and dressed in lemon juice and butter with a fillet of roasted pike and beurre blanc, or hunk of halibut if I didn’t have a pike ready to hand. Seakale’s nutty, slightly bitter flavour and crunchy texture was the gentle foil for the muscular fish and butter sauce.
I’m not sure why seakale dropped out of favour. Perhaps its season was too short and it was just too much trouble to grow in sufficient quantities and so lost out to the more robust and obliging asparagus. Rowley Leigh, a very discerning fellow, was one of the few chefs who celebrated its virtues and put it on his menus at Kensington Place and the Cafe Anglais, with blood orange hollandaise sauce to slather it with. (And charged an arm and a leg for it.)
I won’t pretend that the way seakale in Stroud Farmer’s Market is produced bears any resemblance to the antique methods of our Victorian master gardeners. It’s produced by Westlands UK, that has its origins in the Netherlands. To judge by the website, the Westland operation in the Vale of Evesham is about as far removed from the rustic methods of our horny-handed forebears as it is possible to be. All the wonders of modern agricultural technology have been brought to bear on growing my seakale, along with range of uber fashionable micro leaves, micro greens, micro herbs and edible flowers, all those dainty things that add light and shade to the plates of food in smart restaurants. Of course, those restaurants are shut at present, and that’s why there is a Westland stall at SFM, a silver lining to the Covid cloud.
I intend to visit Westland when we’re allowed to roam more freely. In the meantime, I’ll munchaway and be glad.