“Do you have any cabbage,” the plaintive cry rang out along the wire. I lied. There are few shopping opportunities on Exmoor on a wet Sunday in February, so the denial was a perfidy of the first order, necessitating a 20-mile diversion to the nearest supermarket. We redeemed ourselves with the acquisition of two fine hispi, that curious pointed cabbage that has become a seasonal staple in the past few years. It is fine and loose-leaved with a tender heart that cooks quickly and is an estimable vegetable, especially when turned in a little olive oil and chopped garlic after immersion in boiling water. It served its purpose well, accompanying a fine piece of pork culled from the belly of an English lop that had been lovingly reared by our host for this purpose.
But I lied about the cabbage. We had an abundance of fine, erect leaves of cavolo nero in the garden. I did not withhold it because I had another purpose for it. Indeed, it was not mine to either give or withhold. The fact is I do not regard cavolo nero as a cabbage, or indeed a vegetable, in the conventional sense at all, although it is undoubtedly a fully paid-up member of the brassica family. It is a thing of great beauty, its long and very dark leaves standing proudly in the midst of the winter devastation, and we have discovered in Britain that we can grow it perfectly well, just as well as it grows in the Tuscan hills. You cannot say that about many things such as tomatoes, perhaps, or fennel, aubergines or capsicums. The problem is that we can certainly grow it but I am not so sure that we can cook it.
Simply boiled and tossed in butter or olive oil, cavolo nero is, sorry to say, coarse, tough and tasteless. It is in this sense that cavolo nero is not a vegetable: it is not one of your greens that you can stick beside a chunk of meat or, even worse, fish. Once we accept that cavolo nero needs long, slow cooking – about an hour, in my view – the battle is not entirely won because it is simply too strong a flavour to be eaten on its own. “Black” cabbage needs white, or off-white, starch to absorb and dilute a little its robust and persistent attack.
Once braised, it marries well with potatoes, chestnuts, stale bread and, above all, all manner of pulses. Before the spring vegetables come into view, a minestrone is often little more than beans and cavolo nero. When the beans are cooked with the butt end of a ham or ham stock, the soup is sublime and when made without, it is clean and virtuous, as is this equally honest concoction. Without a word of a lie.
Chickpea and cavolo nero soup
Use tinned chickpeas, by all means, but they
will not be quite so good or as economical as fresh, and soaking
pulses overnight is hardly a chore. This soup improves greatly on reheating.
1 onion, peeled and studded with three cloves
1 large carrot
1 stick of celery or fennel
2 bay leaves
1 sprig of thyme
20 leaves of cavolo nero
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves of finely chopped garlic
450g tinned chopped peeled tomatoes
1 ciabatta or French stick, not necessarily fresh
75g freshly grated Parmesan cheese
■Soak the chickpeas in cold water overnight. The next day, drain them and, with fresh cold water, bring to the boil, without salt. Drain the chickpeas again and cover with more fresh cold water. Add the onion, the whole carrot, the celery and the herbs and bring to the boil again. Skim off any scum from the top and, making sure it is well covered with water, simmer very gently until the chickpeas are tender, about three hours. On no account add salt as this will harden them.
■Wash the cavolo nero
and cut it into thin ribbons across the stem. In a separate saucepan, heat the olive oil and add the garlic. Turn up the heat and, the minute the garlic starts to colour, add the cavolo nero with a good pinch of salt. Allow the cabbage to wilt, turning it occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes with a good pinch of sugar, more salt and a twist of black pepper. Remove the vegetables and herbs from the chickpeas, chop the carrot and celery and return them to the pot with the cabbage, and then add the chickpeas and
their liquid – adding more if necessary to keep everything well covered – and simmer for 40 minutes. Check the seasoning of the soup: it will probably need more salt and possibly a squeeze of lemon.
■Cut the bread into very thin slices and toast them on both sides under a hot grill. Sprinkle the cheese on each one and melt this under the grill in turn. Serve with the hot soup.