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Good old fashioned cauliflower has seen somewhat of a renaissance in recent years, and it's not hard to understand why.

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Cauliflower has been around for a very long time and its history and ancestry can be traced back to the wild cabbage, and its similarities with kale or collards. The ‘cole’ vegetables have a growth habit typical of many members of the family Brassicaceae, with broad, spreading leaves and a branched flowering stem, carrying many individual flowers. They are grown and eaten throughout the world, and include such apparently diverse forms such as cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, broccoli and cauliflower. All of these were, however, domesticated from one ancestral species, the wild cabbage, Brassica oleracea, which is native to the coastal cliffs of the northern Mediterranean and Western Europe, from Greece to the British Isles.

Pliny the Elder (born Gaius Plinius Secundus, AD 23–79) was a Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher, a naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and a friend of Emperor Vespasian. He wrote ‘Natural History,’ a vast encyclopaedia, surveying natural phenomena from cosmology to biology, and medicine to magic. Here, in his descriptions of cultivated plants, he references a plant he called "cyma" stating: "Of all the varieties of cabbage the most pleasant-tasted is cyma." Pliny's descriptions most likely refer to the flowering heads of an earlier cultivated variety of Brassica oleracea. Similar descriptions can also be found in the writings of the Arab botanists Ibn al-'Awwam and Ibn al-Baitar, in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Cauliflowers were apparently introduced into Europe from the Levant or Cyprus at around the end of the fifteenth century. And, although they were introduced to France from Genoa in the 16th century, they did not commonly appear on grand tables until the time of Louis XIV. And so cauliflower became immensely popular in Europe, and well-accepted in Brittany where they were used in sweetbread stews and mushrooms and veal, and later introduced to India in 1822. Cauliflower was first introduced in North America in the late 1600's, and although it was mentioned in American writings as early as the 1800s, it was only in the 1920’s that the cauliflower became commercially available there.

Cauliflower and broccoli are closely related, and the heads which we love to eat are unopened flower buds called "the curd." As many as a dozen cultivars of cauliflower were known one hundred years ago, and today there are even colourful purple and green varieties, although the most common colour you will see is still the white variety.

Significant growers of cauliflower rtoday include: France, India, Italy, The United States and China.

Health Benefits:

Like most fruits and vegetables cauliflower has a long list of nutritional benefits under its belt.  It’s packed with lots of vitamins and minerals, and if you include this vegetable as a regular part of your diet, you can significantly improve your health.

Cauliflower contains high doses of vitamin C, folate and calcium, among other minerals. But most importantly, it has two significant disease-fighters: indole-3-carbinole and sulforaphane. Research has shown that these two work hand in hand to flush toxins out of our bodies. Indole-3-carbinole also helps decrease high levels of oestrogen, thus lowering the risk of tumour growth, especially those located in the breasts and prostate glands.

Cauliflower is also rich in insoluble dietary fibre which helps prevent constipation and haemorrhoids. Because of the glucosinolates and thiocysanates it contains, cauliflower efficiently help the liver in the detoxification process, increasing its ability to neutralize potentially harmful substances. The allicin in cauliflower reduces the risk of strokes and heart problems by maintaining the levels of cholesterol in the body. Yet another nutritional benefit of eating cauliflowers is it has a lipid soluble compound that acts as immune modulator, anti-bacterial and anti-viral compound.

In the Kitchen:

Good old fashioned cauliflower has seen somewhat of a renaissance in recent years, and it's not hard to understand why. This brassica boasts plenty of potential in the kitchen, be it acting as a strong supporting role to main courses in the form of tasty side dishes and salads, or taking the spotlight as the main course.

Cauliflowers are wonderfully versatile, and being pale, they take on the colours of the spices used; and because their flavour is very delicate and unassuming, they can stand alone, or blend beautifully with stronger flavours.
 
Most people associate cauliflower with pickles, delicious cheesy bakes, or thick and creamy cauliflower soups, but recipes for cauliflower are equally varied - from making a carb free pizza base, cauliflower rice or a Persian tortilla, to salads, curries, and even savoury cakes. Whether cauliflower is made into a salad like they do in Sardinia, by combining it with olive oil, garlic and capers, or in a great Indian curry made with potatoes and onions - baked, roasted, fried, steamed, or doused in spices, it remains a star performer in the kitchen, so be adventurous and explore the many inspiring cauliflower recipes online.

Companion Planting:

Companion planting began when gardeners and farmers alike observed that certain plants grew well together, so naturally they continued planting them together for their mutual benefits. Today we need to rediscover this ancient practice – it’s great fun and will reduce the need to spray in the garden.

For example: beans and cauliflower are known to be an ideal combo, celery and cauliflower also work well together, as do onions and cauliflower. Herbs like sage and thyme are also beneficial to cauliflower because their strong scent deters some pests, while their aromatic flowers attract bees and other pollinators.

Other veggies that are recommended for companion planting with cauliflower include: beetroot, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, spinach, cucumber, corn and radish.

Gardeners also observed that certain plants did not enjoy the company of others. For example, it has been noted that peas stunt the growth of cauliflower, and while onions and cauliflower are a great combo, if you throw beans into the mix, it’s not so great. Strawberries and cauliflower do not make good companions because strawberries are notorious for attracting slugs. Tomatoes are also not good near cauliflower as they need a tremendous amount of nutrition, which will lessen the amount available to the cauliflower.

Cultivation/Propagation:

Because cauliflower plants are sensitive to excessive heat as well as sudden changes in temperature, before hybridisation, cauliflower was always sown from mid to late summer to plant out in autumn when temperatures dropped. Today modern hybrids allow us to extend the growing season, and there are early, mid-season and late varieties available, so choose your cultivars carefully.
 
For the best quality heads cauliflower needs to grow quickly, so prepare the beds extremely well, incorporating lots of compost and a dressing of organic 2:3:2. They like slightly alkaline soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7, and very acid soils will need to be amended with agricultural lime to increase alkalinity.

Seed is best sown into seedling trays, and the seedlings transplanted into bigger containers as soon as the first true leaves appear. Plant them into the garden when they are about 15cm tall, spacing them about 50cm apart, and leaving about 50cm between the rows, depending on the variety.

Cauliflowers need constant moisture to grow well, so water them regularly. They resent competition from weeds, but do not like disturbance around their roots, so don't dig around them, rather pull the weeds out gently by hand. Feed with a balanced organic fertiliser that is high in nitrogen about one month after transplanting and again 3 to 4 weeks later.

Once the heads reach about 7 to 10cm in diameter you can fold the outer leaves over them to protect them from heat and wind damage. Early cultivars can be harvested about 7 to 10 weeks after transplanting; mid-season types take about 12 to 15 weeks; and late varieties can take up to 20 weeks or more to mature. Harvest when they are still firm - do not leave them too long or the heads will become loose and the flavour will diminish.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Watch out for aphids, which will cause the leaves to become curled and distorted. Caterpillars, especially the diamond-back and greater cabbage moth caterpillar will eat holes into the leaves and heads, and cutworms can also be a problem. Downy mildew shows as light grey powdery patches on the leaves.

Discoloured heads are caused by sunburn as well as a lack of water.

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