I spent fourteen of the first twenty-one years of my life in institutions. These were neither protective nor penal, but, rather, expensive educational institutions my parents spent good money to send me to. Private education in Britain, however uncomfortable it may be, is a great privilege and an almost certain route to Empire building.
British institutions have one thing in common (or had, since I haven’t sniffed my way around one recently) – the smell of boiled cabbage, often also laced with a whiff of Jeyes Fluid (a floor disinfectant slopped about with a bucket and mop). They say that smell and taste are senses that are rooted more deeply in our memory and unconscious than sight and sound. Certainly the smell of cabbage stirs profound memories in me, usually recalling bleak Winter afternoons on the football or rugby field, where we played brutal games whatever the weather.
All over Britain cabbage is being boiled, and it’s prepared in a very special way. Chop it up, leaving the hard white stalks and spines intact, and boil for a couple of hours in very lightly salted water. The result is a disintegrating mess of watery mush with hard white bits that won’t soften however long you cook them. Boiled cabbage has taught me to eat almost anything at all in adulthood.
But there’s more than one way to cook a cabbage.
I’m in Bucharest this week, visiting the new office of our Romanian subsidiary (LLP Group). Ioana and my other four colleagues took me out to lunch and I ate sarmale. These are stuffed cabbage leaves. They’re much better than those awful stuffed vine leaves they make in Greece and export in tins. Stuffed vine leaves are watery, slightly acidic parcels, made with what feels like thick green paper. The cabbage leaf, by contrast, is perfect for the job of enclosing a mix of spiced minced pork and/or beef, rice, and dill. The cabbage adds a little flavour, but not too much, and its texture, soft and yielding where the vine leaf is hard, is ideal.
It’s also a wonderful picnic food since you can eat each parcel with your fingers. The best sarmale I ever ate were made by Svetlana Culin and we ate them at the back of a tiny hotel in Comrat (capital of the Turkish-speaking Gagauz region of Moldova), albeit without the sour cream that makes them even more delicious and more deadly. Those sarmale set my ‘gold standard’ forever.
I suppose that Europe can be divided into four different cabbage zones. There are those of us in the rugged north who boil our cabbage until it has neither texture nor flavour; there are those in middle Europe who ferment it and serve it as sauerkraut in a variety of different colours (both red and white in Prague, and no doubt soon blue, the third colour of the Czech flag); there are those in Turkish influenced Hungary and the Balkans who stuff it with spiced meat (sarmale in Romania, toltott kaposzta in Hungary), and wisest of all, there are those in southern Europe who give it to their animals.