From Culinary Dud To Stud: How Dutch Plant Breeders Built Our Brussels Sprouts Boom | Prairie Public Broadcasting

From Culinary Dud To Stud: How Dutch Plant Breeders Built Our Brussels Sprouts Boom

Oct 30, 2019
Originally published on October 30, 2019 6:31 pm

Foods go in and out of style. Few of them, though, have gone through as dramatic a renaissance in their reputation as Brussels sprouts.

For many years, they were scorned. Even Steve Bontadelli admits it, and he makes his living growing them. "A lot of people of my generation hated them," he says. "Their moms boiled them and made them even stinkier."

Bontadelli's farm is near Santa Cruz, Calif., where the weather is perfect for growing this vegetable. "We actually had a Brussels sprouts festival here for about 10 years," he says. "And we got a lot of free press out of the deal, because people couldn't believe that you'd have a festival for Brussels sprouts."

What's worse, they even deserved their bad reputation. "They were just very bitter; a very strong bitter taste," Bontadelli says.

This all started to change in the 1990s, and it began in the Netherlands, where Brussels sprouts have a simpler name: spruitjes. A Dutch scientist named Hans van Doorn, who worked at the seed and chemical company Novartis (the seed part is now called Syngenta), figured out exactly which chemical compounds in spruitjes made them bitter.

At that point, the small handful of companies that sell Brussels sprouts seeds started searching their archives, looking for old varieties that happen to have low levels of the bitter chemicals.

One of the companies, also based in the Netherlands, is Bejo Zaden. "We have a whole gene bank here in our cellars, with all the possible Brussels sprouts varieties that were available from the past," says Cees Sintenie, a plant breeder at Bejo Zaden.

The company Bejo Zaden, or Bejo Seeds, discovered less-bitter Brussels sprouts among the packets of seeds that make up its "gene bank" of old varieties.
Cees Sintenie

There are hundreds of these old varieties. The companies grew them in test plots, and they did, in fact, find some that weren't as bitter. They cross-pollinated these old varieties with modern, high-yielding ones, trying to combine the best traits of old and new spruitjes. It took many years. But it worked. "From then on, the taste was much better. It really improved," Sintenie says.

Then word spread in the professional culinary scene. It took off mainly in the United States, not in Europe.

Shannan Troncoso remembers hearing, about a decade ago, that celebrity chef David Chang was doing amazing things with Brussels sprouts and bacon at his restaurant Momofuku, in New York. Then she encountered some crispy fried Brussels sprouts at a restaurant in San Francisco. "It was so good, I was like, I can figure this out! And I can introduce this back into my area," she says.

Freshly fried leaves of Brussels sprouts at Brookland's Finest Bar & Kitchen.
Catie Dull / NPR

When she launched her own restaurant — Brookland's Finest Bar & Kitchen, a neighborhood establishment in Northeast Washington, D.C. — they were on the menu from very beginning.

"We peel the leaves off, each tiny little leaf. That's like a full-time job for somebody," she says. The actual cooking takes no time at all. Troncoso drops a basket of leaves into the fryer. Within seconds, they're turning brown. She pulls them out, lets them drain for a bit, then tosses them with a bit of lemon juice and salt.

Troncoso says that her customers had to be talked into ordering them at first. "People are kind of like, 'ugh, Brussels sprouts,' " she says. But now it's one of her most popular dishes.

Shannan Troncoso tells skeptical customers that if they don't like her fried Brussels sprouts, she'll pay for them.
Catie Dull / NPR

This has been happening in lots of places, just in the past five years or so. And the world has now changed for Steve Bontadelli, back on the farm in Santa Cruz. "Lo and behold, all of a sudden we're on cooking shows!" he says.

Demand is booming; farmers are getting four or five times more money than they did a decade ago for their crop. "My dad, his jaw would just drop," Bontadelli says. "He'd ask me every day, 'What's the price, what's the price?' Because he'd been in the business his whole life. His eyes would just pop out when I'd tell him. He couldn't believe it."

Bontadelli says that there were only about 2,500 acres in the whole country planted with Brussels sprouts just a few years ago. Today, there are 10,000 acres of Brussels sprouts in the U.S., and fields are getting planted in Mexico, too — just so people can get their Brussels sprouts year-round.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Foods go in and out of style, but few of them have seen quite as dramatic a reputational renaissance as Brussels sprouts. Long scorned, now they're trendy - seriously. Sales have quintupled in the past decade. Part of the reason why is tucked away in a basement storage room in the Netherlands. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Steve Bontadelli makes his living growing Brussels sprouts. For a long time, though, he had trouble explaining exactly why.

STEVE BONTADELLI: A lot of people of my generation hated them. Their mom boiled them and made them even stinkier.

CHARLES: His farm is near Santa Cruz, Calif., where the weather is perfect for growing these vegetables.

BONTADELLI: We actually had a Brussels sprouts festival here for 10 years. And we got a lot of free press out of the deal because people couldn't believe that anybody would have a festival for Brussels sprouts.

CHARLES: And the worst thing was they actually deserved their bad reputation.

BONTADELLI: They were just very bitter - very strong bitter taste.

CHARLES: This all started to change a few decades ago in the Netherlands, where Brussels sprouts have a simpler name.

CEES SINTENIE: Spruitjes.

CHARLES: This is Cees Sintenie. He's a plant breeder with a Dutch company called Bejo Seeds.

SINTENIE: At the moment, I'm a breeder of broccoli, Brussels sprouts and Chinese cabbage.

CHARLES: It started in the 1990s when a Dutch scientist figured out exactly which chemical compounds in spruitjes made them bitter. So then companies like Bejo Seeds went through their seed collections to see if any old varieties happened to have low levels of these bitter chemicals.

SINTENIE: We as a company, we have a whole gene bank here in our cellars with all the possible Brussels sprouts varieties that were available from the past.

CHARLES: There are hundreds of these old varieties. The companies grew them in test plots, and they did find some that were not as bitter. They cross-pollinated those old varieties with modern, high-yielding ones, trying to combine the best genetic traits of old and new. It took many years, but it worked.

SINTENIE: From then on, the taste was much better. It really improved. I can say that.

CHARLES: Word spread in the professional culinary scene. Shannan Troncoso remembers hearing about a decade ago that another chef, David Chang, was doing amazing things with Brussels sprouts and bacon at his restaurant Momofuku in New York. Then she encountered some crispy fried Brussels sprouts at a restaurant in San Francisco.

SHANNAN TRONCOSO: It was so good that I was like, I can figure this out, and I can introduce this back into my area.

CHARLES: So when Troncoso launched her own restaurant, Brookland's Finest Bar and Kitchen, in a neighborhood of northeast Washington, D.C., they were on the menu from Day 1. Her version is like Brussels sprouts chips.

TRONCOSO: We peel the leaves - like, each individual tiny, little leaf off.

CHARLES: Then just drop a basket of these leaves into the fryer.

(SOUNDBITE OF OIL CRACKLING)

TRONCOSO: Once they get a little bit brown, they're done. And then we're going to toss them with a little bit of lemon juice and some sea salt.

CHARLES: People had to be talked into ordering this at first, she says. Now it's one of her most popular dishes. This has been happening all over the past five years or so, and the world has changed for Steve Bontadelli back on the farm in Santa Cruz.

BONTADELLI: Lo and behold, all of a sudden, we're on cooking shows.

CHARLES: There is so much demand for Brussels sprouts, farmers are getting four or five times as much money for them as they did a decade ago.

BONTADELLI: My dad - his jaw would just drop. He'd ask me every day, what's the price? What's the price? 'Cause he'd been in the business his whole life. And his eyes would just pop out when I'd tell him. He couldn't believe it.

CHARLES: Just a few years ago, there were only about 2,500 acres of Brussels sprouts in the whole country. Today, it's five times that in the U.S., and fields are getting planted in Mexico, too, so people can get their Brussels sprouts year-round.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.