Sunday, 26 September 2010

Cavolo Nero

Cavolo Nero is Italian for Black Cabbage. In England it is also sometimes referred to as Black Kale. In fact I think it is much more akin to kale than it is to cabbage. Anyway, it's a member of brassica family.

In England this vegetable is still treated as something of a curiosity. You can sometimes buy it in the shops, but you couldn't rely on finding it when you wanted it. This may be because many people wouldn't know what to do with it, so the demand for it is not great. Also, the fact that it is a very dark colour may put some people off, because they perceive it to be "strong and bitter" -- in much the same way as the Brussels Sprout, which as we know has always had a bad press. Actually the colour only gets really dark (and never quite black) when the weather turns cooler. During the Summer the plants will be a sort of silvery grey colour.

Jane and I happen to like Cavolo Nero, so I normally try to grow a few plants of it. It is also very decorative and some people grow it simply for its visual effect. Take a look at this...

Cavolo Nero leaves have a lot visual appeal

If you are gardening in the "Potager" style, with decorative plants interspersed with edible ones, you will probably see the potential of the very striking tall thin plume-like leaves of Cavolo Nero, whose dark colour can provide a lovely contrast alongside something shorter but less sombre -- like for instance some bright orange marigolds.

Cavolo Nero with Marigolds in the background

Cavolo Nero is primarily an Autumn / Winter vegetable, and if you sow at the right time will usually be ready from about late September onwards. It certainly doesn't occupy the ground for as long as Sprouting Broccoli, which I normally sow at about the same time. It is quite hardy too, and will normally make it through the Winter until the following Spring if you let it.

I sow Cavolo Nero seeds some time in April, prick-out the best of the small seedlings into pots of about 10cm as soon as they have a couple of proper leaves, and then grow them on in these pots until about late June or early July, when space becomes available to plant them out in their final growing positions. This is normally in the bed which has previously hosted peas and broad beans, since the root nodules of these legumes contribute a lot of Nitrogen to the soil, which will be enjoyed by the leafy brassicas.

Young Cavolo Nero plant in July

If planting is delayed for any reason, it may be necessary to pot-on the Cavolo Nero into larger pots, to stop their growth being checked. In recent years I have suffered a lot of damage from Vine Weevil larvae, which attack the roots of the brassicas (as well as the beans!), and this will eventually cause the seedlings to collapse and die. This year I had a try with nematodes for controlling the weevils, and have had pretty good results. Of course it is easier to apply the nematodes (which you do with a watering-can) if your plants are in pots.

When planting out the Cavolo Nero, remember to visualise how they will look when they are mature -- particularly if you (like me) are putting them in a bed with Sprouting Broccoli, which will get VERY big. In my winter brassicas bed I only have 8 plants -- 6 Sprouting Broccoli and 2 Cavolo Nero -- and I have deliberately positioned the Cavolo Nero at opposite corners where I hope they will not be overshadowed too much by the broccoli.

Winter brassicas in early September -- Cavolo Nero nearest camera

You can harvest Cavolo Nero in two ways: either cut the whole plant and use it in one go, like you would with a cabbage, or pluck individual leaves, like you would with Curly Kale. If you use the latter method, remember to pick only the middle-sized leaves. The older, bigger ones will be a bit tough, and may be somewhat ragged, but they are the ones that are contributing most to the growth of the plant, so leave them in place. The little tiny ones, whilst they may look (and indeed, are) more appetising, should be left for the future development of the plant: take these off and your plant is finished. If you can afford to leave a couple of plants in place until Spring, even though you may have picked off most of the mature leaves, you may be able to harvest another crop -- the tiny flower shoots (a bit like Sprouting Broccoli) that will appear. Cut them when they are VERY small though, before they go stringy.


Cavolo Nero ready for harvesting
A whole head of Cavolo Nero on the worktop ready for prep
The best leaves selected
Before you cook the Cavolo Nero first wash it thoroughly to remove any dirt or bugs, because the crinkly "savoyed" texture of the leaves can harbour all manner of undesirable items. Then, if you like you can just chop the long leaves up into convenient lengths, but for optimum texture it is best to strip the soft "leafy" bit away from the central woody vein which you then discard. (You can do this easily with your fingernails!) It really depends on how mature are the leaves you have harvested.

Stripping the leaves from the stalks
You could use the Cavolo Nero in any recipe that calls for kale. For instance, why not find a recipe for the traditional Tuscan peasant dish called "Ribollita", which uses Cavolo Nero along with Cannellini beans (amongst other things!). For another simple but rather more sophisticated dish, try this recipe that Jane has adapted from one that she originally found in one of the River Cafe books:

Pasta with Cavolo Nero, garlic and chilli.

Ingredients (to serve 2 people):

The ingredients
A "slack handful" (maybe 10 or 12 medium-sized leaves) of Cavolo Nero  -- with the central veins stripped-out, as described above -- cut into conveniently-sized pieces.
About 200g of dry pasta.
Approx 150ml Double Cream, or if you are dieting, a reduced-fat substitute, such as Elmlea or similar.
Two or three cloves of garlic (depending how much you like it) -- bruised, but each clove left basically in one piece.
A generous pinch of dried chilli flakes. Maybe a quarter-teaspoonful ?
Freshly-grated Parmesan cheese, to taste. Maybe 25g ?

Put the garlic and cream into a small saucepan.
Bring almost to a boil, remove from heat, allow to stand for at least 30 mins to infuse (don't skimp this stage, or the dish will be too bland!)

Garlic infusing in the cream
Cook the pasta as directed on the packet, until nearly ready.

Adding the pasta to the pan of boiling water
When the pasta is about 2 minutes away from being ready, add the Cavolo Nero to the pan of pasta and continue to cook until tender (hopefully only a couple of minutes!). Drain pasta and Cavolo Nero thoroughly.

Adding the Cavolo Nero to the already nearly-cooked pasta
Remove the garlic from the cream.
Mix everything else (including the chilli flakes and the Parmesan) together in a pan.
Heat gently for a couple of minutes, just to reheat the cream to serving temperature and melt the cheese.

Mixing all the ingredients

The finished article!
Serve with salad, crusty bread, and a robust white wine...(a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc would be ideal).

The "Salad" -- homegrown lettuce "Fristina"

The "crusty bread" -- home-made of course!
The "Sauvignon Blanc wine" -- regrettably not home-made

The conclusion...

All that was left...

This dish is absolutely fabulous! Creamy, tasty with the subtly-infused garlic, comfortably warming with the chilli, sustaining with the pasta, and finally -- it has that mild "iron" taste of brassica without being overpowering. "Perfect".


  1. I am going to have to see if I can get seeds for this. The recipe sounds wonderful!

  2. I'm sold on Cavolo Nero, a great visual plant for the garden too!

  3. Hi Mark, nice blog you have here. I came here from google searching for information on how to harvest the cavolo nero plant. Anyway, you mention leaving the old leaves as they are contributing to the growth of the plant; would this be the very bottom leaves or the first two layers of leaves or? I'd like to just pick my leaves as a kind of cut and come again plant rather than just harvest the thing in one go.

  4. Hi Sportsgirl; Thanks for visiting my blog. Like you, I tend to treat Cavolo Nero as a cut-and-come-again crop rather cutting a whole head in one go. As brassicas go, CN is quite strongly-flavoured, and a little bit goes a long way. I would pick the younger leaves for eating, and leave the older ones on the plant. The old ones can get pretty ragged anyway, so are perhaps not particularly appetising. If it were me, I would leave at least 8 or 10 leaves on the plant at any given moment, to keep things going, and only pick young fresh ones. You can use the tiny ones as salad a ingredient you know. My CN seeds for next Autumn / Winter have just germinated. Several months will need to elapse before I can pick any!

  5. It is my first try growing Cavolo Nero and I think my plants are just teenagers at the moment. I am watching them with a loving but hungry eye! LOL! If I do harvest the lower leaves do you think it would be detrimental to the growth of the plant?

    I have some other Kale plants (Squire variety) growing which have been going strong for months. I usually harvest 5 or 6 leaves from each plant a time. The lower leaves are a little ratty and I either feed them to my rabbit or leave them to the bugs. I love Kale!

  6. hi mark,

    its june 21st and completely forgot to plant cavolo nero. I live in london - is it too late now? i'm thinking that if they can be harvested through till jan, it might be ok?

  7. Tommy; No, it's not too late at all. I only sowed mine a couple of weeks ago, and things are all very late this year anyway because of the weather.


Thank you for taking time to leave me a comment! Please note that Comment Moderation is enabled for older posts.