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Big-money sprouts cause Christmas Day stir

Victoria Craig Dec 25, 2019
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Roasted Brussels Sprout leaves with Pecorino. Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Big-money sprouts cause Christmas Day stir

Victoria Craig Dec 25, 2019
Roasted Brussels Sprout leaves with Pecorino. Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post via Getty Images
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Roasted, sautéed, or boiled, Brussels sprouts are big business at Christmas in the UK.

The sprout industry is a nearly $1 billion industry in Britain, and customers tend to pay as much as 30% more this time of year as people rush to stock up.

This year, though, Brussels sprout lovers have forked over even more cash. That’s because farmers have opted not to grow as much in 2019, and a wetter-than-usual summer in a key growing region damaged early crops. The shortage pushed wholesale prices up 29% in the second week of December from a year ago.

Normally, British consumers could rely on extra supply from their European neighbours, but growers there have also dealt with rough weather.

“During this time of year, we could have imported from countries like the Netherlands. But the supply situation in Europe has been more difficult by extreme temperatures on the continent. So, this year we might expect something to be missing from our Christmas dinner plate,” said Rutika Ghodekar, market analyst at food-price provider, Mintec.

Ghodekar doesn’t find the tiny veggies particularly appealing, but she said her daughter will miss the traditional side dish if she’s unable to stock up before dinner hits the table. She’s not alone: Many people in the UK share the love of sprouts. A 2018 poll by YouGov showed 62% of those surveyed included Brussels sprouts as part of their ideal Christmas dinner.  

It’s not a new trend, though: Sprouts have been a staple on holiday tables since the Victorian era.

That’s because it was one of only a few vegetable options during long, dark winter months, according to food historian Kaori O’Connor.

“In the same way that you have to have cranberry sauce for American Thanksgiving, you could not have [Christmas] without sprouts,” she said.

But, she said the vegetable’s smelly reputation comes from Victorian cooking techniques that told home cooks to peel and boil the vegetable like cabbage,  sometimes for hours on end.

“The big thing that’s happened is recent years is the discovery of roasted vegetables and there is nothing more beautiful than a roasted sprout,” O’Connor said. “The classic British way to do it is with bacon and chestnuts. The whole Christmas dinner: What can you symbolize it by? Not a Christmas turkey but a sprout.”

UK supermarket Marks and Spencer sold chocolate wrapped in Brussels sprout foil. (Photo by the BBC’s Victoria Craig)

For those who didn’t want to dole out the side dish at their Christmas feast — or couldn’t find them in the supermarket — one grocery-store chain came up with a solution: Small chocolate balls wrapped in foil designed to look like the vegetable.

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