I’m Spartacus . . .

Gone but not forgotten: the allotment plot
Gone but not forgotten: the allotment plot

IT’S time to stand up for gherkins. For too many years this splendid vegetable – or fruit, to be precise – has been maligned in the British press. Legions of journalists have used the gherkin as a stop-gap measure to fill newspaper columns in times of adversity. The hour has come to redress the balance and embrace the gherkin; it’s time to gaze out across a vast desert of prejudice and cry out from the crucifix: “Yes, I’m Spartacus. And I also love gherkins . . .”

As a redundant and somewhat embittered journalist I’ll let you into a trick of the trade. Certain times of year, and certain perennial subjects, dictate certain types of story appearing in your newspapers and on the television news. For instance, the run-up to Christmas produces a welter of stories about Brussels sprouts and why people buy them, cook them, then scrape them into the bin at the end of the Christmas Day meal.

No one likes sprouts, we are told every year. We buy them because, like turkeys and chestnuts, they are part of Christmas.

This isn’t news because it isn’t true. The overwhelming majority of people who buy sprouts eat them because they enjoy them. But the stories are resurrected every December. The maligning of sprouts has, in itself, become a pre-Christmas tradition through a mixture of lazy journalism and a pressure on news-editors to generate content when the rest of the world has closed down for the festive season.

The result is an ingrained hostility towards Brussels sprouts, a sort of resigned acceptance that at Christmas they must be bought, cooked and at least nibbled. It’s like in the old days when Friday night was cod-liver oil night. You held your nose and got it over with because that’s how it worked.

spartacus 3In the real world, things are different. There were thirty tenants on my allotment site in North Yorkshire, and nearly every one of those tenants grew sprouts, were proud of their plants and looked forward to eating the produce. When my newspaper printed its traditional sprouts horror stories, I’d be greeted by grunts and hostile comments from my fellow gardeners: “More bollocks about sprouts, eh? Can’t be much proper news about. You lot got nothing better to do? How much does that paper cost these days? Bloody 70p? I’ll be cancelling my bloody copy.”

spartacus 5Daily Express: Sprout of order! Bad news for some. Brussels are bigger than ever this year

Daily Express: Wind warning – Britain grows some super-sized sprouts

Daily Express comment about sprouts: Things we love to hate

Daily Mail: Is this the cruellest Christmas prank ever? Jokers dip Brussels sprouts in chocolate and then put them in Ferrero Rocher wrappers – before offering to innocent pals

Daily Mail: The BBC unveils its new Christmas hero – an animated brussels sprout (but will anybody like it?)

Irish Examiner: Bear Grylls reveals his unappetising childhood diet – including stewed Brussel sprouts

Outside the festive season, and for the rest of the year, broccoli becomes the fall guy. On how many occasions have you heard breakfast-time television presenters utter a sentence like this: “Scientists have discovered health-boosting properties in the humble broccoli – but how many children actually like it?

Broccoli is instantly demonised. Kids eating their breakfast cereal are thinking: “Whoa . . . Those little green trees that mum gives us are actually broccoli, and that’s rank.”

All around the nation, farmers, allotment holders, greengrocers, vegetable wholesalers and members of the public blessed with the capacity to think for themselves are shouting at their televisions: “You stupid plank. Can’t you for Christ’s sake think of something original to say about broccoli, something not so cringingly stereotypical and mind-numbingly predictable, before I come round there and stuff a parsnip up your nostril?”

But the damage has been done. Broccoli has had its place in the vegetable hate pantheon reinforced by a middle-aged man in a cardigan and a bubbly young woman on a sofa.

New Zealand Listener: Is the goal to get your child to eat that piece of broccoli or to create lifelong habits?

Superfoodsrx.com: How to trick kids into eating broccoli

Daily Express: Broccoli, spinach and apples – the best diet for your dog

spartacus 2And so we arrive at the gherkin. As maligned vegetables go, this little brother of the cucumber family has really had it rough, a state of affairs brought about exclusively by its inclusion in the  McDonald’s burger.

Naturally, the press has fallen upon the gherkin with the latent energy of a bruised tomato hitting a pavement, simply because it is green – which implies healthy – and looks a bit like a willy. It is now mandatory for an article about  McDonald’s products to make reference to the gherkin, and even question its existential right. This corrosive practice has tainted public opinion. The unassuming gherkin has become a leper without a colony.

Daily Mail: Competitive eater Adam Moran, has set a new world record by eating a belly-busting 17 Big Macs in under an hour. Speaking about the challenge, he said: “It was enjoyable for about seven Big Macs, after that it became exponentially less enjoyable with every bite. Funnily enough, it wasn’t the volume that got me, but the flavour of the gherkins. Had I ordered them without gherkins I might have downed a few more.”

Yahoo Answers: Im confused what is the green thing on the maccas burger – a gherkin or pickle? Or is it both

Digital Spy: So why do they put them in there? Is it some sort of legal requirement? I mean, no one eats them right?

Unspecified site: Did you know that a McDonalds Hamburger has that much sugar in it that if the gherkins weren’t placed their [sic] by the store, they would have to class the hamburger as a confectionary item according to the food standards agency’s policies!

Fairfax Digital: Who likes gherkins? Not many of us, if the soggy green circles left in burger wrappers or stuck to the windows, roof or floor of the average McDonald’s are any guide

spartacus 6 spartacus 7 I’ve been growing and pickling gherkins for quite a few years, partly in protest at media hostility and the tribal mentality of an unimaginative though vocal section of the public; partly because I’ve visited Poland several times, a country where pickled gherkins are held in national esteem; and partly because they are a delicious accompaniment to meat dishes – and delicious on their own.

My wife refers to gherkins as wallies, a term she picked up while living in London during the 1960s. Apparently, immigrants from eastern Europe during the late 19th Century imported barrels of pickled olives and gherkins. “Wallies” is assumed to be a corruption of “olives”, but the term became associated with the gherkins.

So the gherkin has been part of our culinary heritage for far longer than its association with the Big Mac. Its ridicule in the media and popular culture is a recent development, easily eclipsed by its appreciation by generations of food lovers.

spartacus 8The pickling season has arrived in Andalucia with the ripening of my first gherkins grown in Spanish soil. A departure from tradition is the addition of white wine vinegar instead of the malt variety, which I can’t find anywhere. Early tastings indicate a rather subtle improvement. I can live with that.

Si, soy Spartacus. Y tambien me gustan los pepinillos.

spartacus 9

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17 thoughts on “I’m Spartacus . . .

  1. I thought for a minute you had frost over there! I think the main reason those veggies were maligned originally is because they used to be cooked until they were mushy in the old days – now they’re left crisp, most people like them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We have had a few frosts and there is still snow on the mountains, but the minimum temp at nights now is about 8C.
      Yes, people used to boil the life out of greens. I’ve heard it said that vegetable varieties were coarser and tougher in the old days and therefore required boiling longer, but I don’t know if there’s any truth in that.
      Cheers, Alen

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  2. Enjoyed that read Alen and the comments about the media rolling out their annual stories often sets of a bit of a rant from me in the form of “not again, have they now’t better to bloody write about”.

    I am afraid I am in the hate sprouts camp. I eat one a year at Christmas because everyone else who arrives for dinner loves them and it’s become a bit of a tradition, to laugh at me eating one. Clearly we are easily entertained at Christmas. Fortunately I love gherkins and the like.

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    1. Hi David. Good to hear from you. I would have thought that a man of your outdoor skills would have foraged for sprouts and cooked them over an open fire. Still, at least you like gherkins.
      Sounds like fun Christmas entertainment up there in Teesdale. I hope you manage to grin and bear it!
      All the best, Alen

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  3. Last Christmas – possibly the most boring on record in my house – the brussel sprouts turned out to be edible for the first time in living memory. They were quite sweet instead of usually tasting like vomit. I don’t know what to put it down to: a different variety, something in the water, Christmas being unusually boring last time.

    The name gherkin has something medieval about it, which is all right in my book. The older the name sounds the more authority and integrity it has. Turnip sounds comical, and caper is positiviely Shakespearean. (‘Let me see thee caper…’ etc)

    And to stop me sounding like I’m knowledgable, I only found out last year that a marrow is a supersized courgette!

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    1. Now then. I knew that a courgette was a little marrow (marrow being a courge), so I suppose a marrow is a super-sized courgette. Gherkin does have a mediaeval sound, now you come to mention it. I shall look into that because it sounds pretty interesting – at least it does to someone who’s interested in the names of vegetables.
      Shallots have an Arthurian sound, I’ve always thought. And Pumpkin sounds like the name of a hobbit who couldn’t keep up with the others and never made it to Rivendell.
      I shall never look at vegetables in the same light.
      Alen

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your allotment plot would be a bit wild and windswept today, Alen – looks far sunnier in Spain! Some nice healthy looking gherkins you’ve got there, and I bet they are tasty. I agree with you about the newspapers and the stories. Cringeworthy. PS. Have you stopped being Rodriguez?

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    1. Hi Jo. Yes, I was Rodriguez for but a few short days. In fact, one short week. I enjoyed it immensely, but don’t tell anyone.
      Yes, I miss the old allotment, whatever the weather. Even sitting inside the polytunnel listening to the rain and wind drumming on the polythene, cup of tea in my hand, was a pleasure. Happy days.
      Cheers, Alen

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  5. T’riffic! Let’s hear for GHERKINS, SPROUTS and BROCOLLI. About time someone stood up for these wonder foods. (There’s nothing better than a pickled gherkin).

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  6. Did I dream this, or were we once pitted against each other in a competitive gherkin eating and whiskey drinking, to the death, challenge. It was one Christmas in the 80s. Just a thought.

    George

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    1. Now then, George. Just recently I asked if I’d dreamt that you and Lionel Blair danced together in front of an astonished audience at a Christmas party in Norwich, and you said it wasn’t a dream, it was actually true. So, on the balance of probabilities, I’d say the gherkin-eating and whisky-drinking challenge actually happened, although I must admit I don’t remember. Sounds like something we could revisit in the near future.
      Cheers, Alen

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  7. Hi Alen. You only need Monty Python to dictate: Only one cross each!
    I’m a little lost with this post. I’m not so familiar with all those vegetable words even though I love broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
    Gherkin has its justification in a sandwich consisting of delicious white bread with a chewy crumb, lightly toasted, reasonable amount of butter, crispy crunchy mixed salad, lots of thinly sliced, medium fried roast beef, home made Danish Remoulade* and coarsely grated horseradish.
    I will go far after such a meal, I would even strap on a helmet and fight in an arena for a sandwich with gherkin and fittings 🙂
    *remoulade, consisting of white cabbage, rape seed oil, sugar, vinegar, cauliflower, spices, mustard, egg yolks pasteuriserde, onions and salt … and pickled gherkin.
    All the best,
    Hanna
    PS Vaya con Dios, Espartaco!!

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    1. Hanna, I think I should jump in my van and drive up to Denmark for one of your sandwiches. They sound absolutely delicious. Is that what you make for your packed lunch when you go out for one of your wallks?
      I must admit that Remoulade is something new to me. I shall look into some recipes and make a few jars. I’m always up for a new challenge.
      All the best, Alen

      Liked by 1 person

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