Oh so fashionable, kale is popping up on menus everywhere
Freshly harvested kale. Photograph: Getty Images
On the vague off chance that you haven’t yet noticed, might I mention the fact that kale
is trending? Once dismissed as tasteless fodder crops, this leafy, flavoursome, nutritious, ultra-hardy, versatile vegetable is now on the menus of the smartest restaurants, whether blanched and sautéed, steamed, deep-fried, or used in salads, soups, smoothies, stews, casseroles and curries.
Of the many varieties that are cultivated, I enjoy growing two in particular. One is the Tuscan kale known as ‘Cavolo Nero’ or ‘Nero di Toscana’, a tall, elegant plant with stiffly plumed, dimpled leaves of the deepest inky blue-green.
An 18th-century heirloom variety, this good-looking, tasty kale has long been a favourite of gardeners, including Thomas Jefferson, former president of the US, who grew it in his famous gardens at Monticello in Virginia.
The other variety I grow is the Russian kale known as ‘Ragged Jack’, another heritage kale with a long and rich history of cultivation, whose sweet, tender oak-shaped pale green leaves are flushed through with pink.
Both plants are highly ornamental, delicious additions to both the kitchen and the flower garden, easily grown from seed each year in late spring/early summer to produce large plants productive over many months.
But while I wouldn’t be without either of them, for the first time ever I’m also growing a third kind – a very special kale that (for now, at least) I’m calling ‘Glin Castle Perennial Kale’.
This vegetable is the sort of plant that kitchen gardeners and permaculturists dream about. Firstly, it’s properly perennial, with a life span of at least four to five years, after which you simply grow new plants from cuttings. Secondly, it’s astonishingly productive, throwing out tender new leaves at such a lick that just one or two mature plants can keep a family in a regular supply of tasty, nutritious leaves for most of the year.
Thirdly, it’s surprisingly easy to grow, the only proviso being that, like any member of the cabbage family, it must be protected against snails/slugs as well as netted against the cabbage white butterfly.
The catch (there’s almost always a catch), is that neither the seed nor young plants are often seen for sale. Why? Well, when it comes to the scarcity of seed, the explanation is a straightforward one; it only very rarely flowers and even then, only very occasionally sets seed.
But growing it from a cutting is a different matter entirely. Stick a piece of it in the ground (or in a pot) and it will root with willing abandon. It’s this quality that makes the scarcity of plants for sale so inexplicable (I’ve never seen perennial kale on the shelves of an Irish garden centre, for example, or listed in the catalogues of an Irish nursery).
In fact, short of sourcing perennial kale by mail order from one of the few specialist European suppliers (see below), the only way I know of getting your muddy hands on a plant is by being given it as a gift, the very same way by which it has survived in cultivation for so long.