Ottolenghi's quote comes from his radio documentary for The Food Programme. "It’s very easy to imagine cauliflower as a dull, white, bland ingredient," he states, but "cauliflower has got different qualities".
When cooked well (banish all thoughts of childhood mush) cauliflower has a unique texture and is terrific at soaking up spices and other flavours.
There are, of course, other varieties of the plant. These include purple and yellow cauliflowers and the wonderful-looking Romanesco (pictured right).
However the classic white cauliflower is widely considered the best to eat. (The coloured types also lose their hue when cooked).
- Cauliflower is in season twelve months a year. The plant is from the species oleracea and part of the brassica family.
- Around 300 million heads of cauliflower are grown in the UK each year by 50-60 specialist growers. Estimated value of the crop is £60 million.
- Three florets of cauliflower per day will provide 67% of your daily requirement of Vitamin C. It is also high in dietary fibre, folate and Vitamin K; low in saturated fat and cholesterol. The plant is high in glucosinolates which help prevent breast and prostate cancers.
- Cauliflower was introduced into Britain by missionaries returning from overseas in the 13th Century from the Middle East. Originally known as ‘Coleflower’ (meaning cabbage flower) this was a white sprouting broccoli type. Breeding has changed this to a single sprout with a white head.
- Winter cauliflower is planted around July for harvest from October to June. Summer cauliflower is planted weekly from March to June for a summer harvest.
Growing and harvesting
Cauliflower is a large plant that grows best in alkaline soils. Here is one modelled by top grower Chris Bones from P R Bones & Son, near Broadstairs in Thanet, Kent.
He produces around 1.83 million cauliflowers per year on 250 acres. "Anyone can grow cabbage - cauliflower is more soil and climate dependent," he says. Other key areas for production are Cornwall and Lincolnshire.
Bones cultivates 72 different varieties of cauliflower, with some of these "split planted" - i.e. sown a few weeks apart to ensure a continuity of supply.
These varieties are best grouped into summer or winter cauliflowers. "They are two different things," he says. Summer cauliflowers are quick to mature (approx. 85-90 days) in temperatures from around 10-25 degrees Celsius. Winter cauliflowers tolerate lower temperatures and take much longer to reach maturity (approx. 270 days).
Bones sends his hybrid seed to a specialist module propagator, who produces the young plants in small blocks to plant out.
It is vital to ensure good air flow around the plants to help prevent disease. The crop is "shimmed" three times a year, removing weeds between rows and, for the final round, earthed up to stabilise the plant against the wind. Rain and frost can affect the colour of the curd.
"Packaging is the thing that has really changed now - it has to be recyclable and look the part," Bones says, showing me his smart new boxes.
In the market
Cauliflowers are sold by a wide range of wholesalers on the market. They are typically sold in boxes of sixes and eights. Most Romanesco, purple and yellow varieties are grown in France and Italy. (Small volumes of Romanesco are UK-grown by producers such as Windy Ridge in Lincolnshire).
There's been a flurry of cauliflower creativity in recent years - fuelled by an increased interest in plant-based foods and gluten-free and low-carb cooking.
Cauliflower even hit the headlines recently when Marks and Spencer got slammed online for charging £2 for two cauliflower steaks with a lemon and herb drizzle. The product was swiftly withdrawn.
Spare a nostalgic thought for the classic dish of cauliflower cheese. Delia Smith makes it with a twist of adding the inner leaves, using creme fraiche instead of white sauce and adding nutmeg and salt to the steaming water.
At Brunswick House, a restaurant just minutes from the market, they are serving a dish of Romanesco with black lentils, curry and almonds.
Romanesco also featured in chef Giorgio Locatelli's recent TV programme 'Rome Unpacked' when he demonstrated the ingredient in a traditional skate soup.
At Caravan, the chefs draw inspiration from around the globe. At the King's Cross branch, they serve spiced cauliflower with harissa, pomegranate yoghurt and nigella, while in the City it's charred cauliflower with beetroot, radicchio, romesco sauce, leaves, galotryi (a Greek cheese) and almonds.
At Mortimer House in Fitzrovia, Chef Luca Inali serves up ‘Charcoal Cauliflower’: a whole cauliflower roasted with za’taar and topped with tahini.
Here's a still from a video showing the process of making cauliflower 'rice' by Instagram user @helloglowblog.
Here's a stunning (and more traditional) cauliflower soup from @deliciaskitchen.
So what's next for this mighty plant? Eating the leaves. "To be honest, people think they are wastage - but they are perfectly edible," explains David Simmons, Director of the Brassica Growers Association.
P R Bones & Son
Buddles Farm House
Dane Ct Rd