Most divisive Christmas vegetable? Here’s the ‘tough’ process Brussels sprouts go through | World News
In the world of Christmas vegetables, nothing is more divisive than a Brussels sprout.
And here, as I look out over a factory in the Netherlands, they are everywhere.
It is like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but recast in sprout form.
They roll along conveyor belts, get poured into huge machinery and tumble into chutes.
They’re photographed and lifted, sized and sorted, packed and chilled.
It is relentless, like watching a green magma flow. As more and more sprouts are delivered from farms, so they are fed into the machinery, and so the slow march goes on and on.
If you like sprouts (spoiler alert: I do) then this is a mesmerising sight.
Sprouts of all sizes are whizzing around us, being divided into huge wheeled tubs that fill up in minutes. The Dutch like the small ones. The biggest are off to Germany.
And there, in the middle, are the containers for the British. We like smaller Brussels sprouts with a crisp taste.
The fine sprouts, as they are described to me.
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The world centre of sprout-growing
Peter van’t Woudt is the site manager at the Primeale factory in the Netherlands – the world centre of sprout-growing.
As the sprouts roll in, he studies them constantly, running his hand through the vat as it fills up.
This is a crucial time of the year in the Brussels sprout world.
“We are running for 24 hours per day,” he said, looking round his factory.
“This is the time of the year when we all have to work hard because everyone wants the sprouts. But here, we are a team.”
On a good day, it can take 34 hours for the sprouts to go from entering this factory to the shelves of a British supermarket, and being snapped up soon after.
It’s reckoned that British shoppers buy something like 750 million sprouts over the Christmas period, but that only around half of them will actually be eaten.
It is the vegetable that you either love or hate and, yes, even within the sprout factory I met some people who love them, despite spending the whole day staring at sprouts, and others who couldn’t bear the taste.
How do you even harvest a sprout in winter?
Then there is Jack’s Gravemade, whose job is to use infrared cameras to weed out the bad sprouts.
He said he used to hate them as a child, but has now become a devout fan.
This has been a tough year for them, he said, with the long hot summer affecting sprouts.
Last year, only about 8% of sprouts were deemed unacceptable: now it’s double that.
That’s tough for the farmers. Half an hour away, we are standing in a muddy field, talking to Frederique Sonneveld, Primeale’s product manager with oversight of Brussels sprouts, and she is worried.
Her parents worked in sprouts, and so did their parents before.
There is nothing she doesn’t know about these things, which is handy because really all I know is how to cook and eat them.
Sprouts grow out of the ground – they really do sprout up – on all sides of a thick stalk.
To harvest them, a slow-moving vehicle runs along the line of vegetables, with four people sitting in the front.
Huge cutters trim the stalk at ground level, then it gets lifted by hand and fed into a hole where a hidden machine strips the sprouts from the stalk.
The problem is that you can’t do any of this if the ground is frozen. And right now, the weather is cold, which is why Ms Sonneveld is worried.
“I’m nervous because this is such an important time of the year, but we can’t do anything if it’s too cold. We need to harvest as much as we can but…”, she shrugs and smiles a slightly anxious smile.
“They need our care and our love.”
‘I think about sprouts every day’
There is, of course, nothing you can do about the vagaries of nature.
The summer was difficult, she explained, but it wasn’t the only problem.
The spiralling price of energy has made farming more expensive, and so has inflation in the labour market. Sprouting sprouts is an expensive business these days.
Ms Sonneveld is an avowed fan of the taste of the sprout, although she does look bewildered when I ask if she eats them every day.
“I think about them every day, but I don’t always eat them,” she replied. Probably very wise.
She presents me with what she considers to be the most beautiful example she can find – perfect size, no flaky leaves and a glistening sheen.
“Bling, bling,” she said, handing it over. Not, if I’m honest, an expression I’ve ever associated with a Brussels sprout before.
But it is unarguably a nice looking sprout. It’s the one I’m holding in our television report, and which I’m going to eat shortly.
The fact is that a huge amount of time, effort, money, passion and planning goes into delivering the humble sprout to your table. They are cherished and loved, coaxed to grow, and then sped to your table.
And all that for something that half of you won’t want. It’s a cruel life, being a Brussels sprout.
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