What is the UK's national vegetable?

Traditional British vegetables

British TV chefs and restaurateurs are keen for us to eat locally grown produce. But is there a single national vegetable?

Leeks are Welsh. Potatoes are associated with Ireland. And overcooked cabbage, cauliflower and sprouts are classic school dinner fare.

Asparagus is a strong contender for an English vegetable, coming into season on St George's Day, says Nora Ryan, editor of the BBC Food website. But is there one that could be described as Britain's national vegetable?

"The French have the green bean, garlic and onions, Eastern Europeans have the beetroot and cabbage, and Italians can lay claim to the tomato," she says.

Find out more

Hairy Bikers in cauliflower field
  • 10 well-known cooks champion traditional produce in Great British Food Revival on BBC Two, 9 March, 2000 GMT
  • And Ivan Day recreates Victorian dishes in Royal Upstairs Downstairs on BBC Two at 1830 GMT

BBC Two's new series The Great British Food Revival seeks to revive interest in traditional crops under pressure from exotic rivals, market pressures and changing food fashions.

Food historian Ivan Day says it is hard to narrow down a quintessential vegetable as British cookery has, historically, lavished more attention on meat and fish dishes. And many contenders have their origins in other countries. Kale and leeks date from before the Norman conquest, but the cool climate has long limited choices for gardeners.

What about the humble spud - where would these islands be without mash, chips and potato-laden Irish stew?

This vegetable comes from foreign climes. The first eaten here were sweet potatoes, used in desserts in the late 16th Century, says Day. But, as natives of Spanish colonies in central America, these didn't grow well in Britain.

White potatoes from North America, however, flourished. "They nudged themselves in gradually. It wasn't until the late 18th Century that potatoes became a staple, replacing bread or pie crust. They were particularly popular in the 'oat counties' - northern England and Scotland - where wheat didn't grow easily. Potatoes were a welcome substitute for coarse oat cakes."

Pea pod The garden pea: Ivan Day's nomination

Our attitudes to vegetables are not static, says Day. "In the past 40 years, we've been introduced to more vigorous tasting vegetables, from aubergines and peppers to salad leaves from the Far East. Bigger flavours have outshone our traditional vegetables."

Cauliflower sales alone have fallen by 35% in the past decade, supplanted largely by its greener cousin broccoli, which has been cannily marketed as a superfood, says Philip Lowery, of the Real Food Festival.

"Because of this idea that green and colourful vegetables are more nutritious, the poor, pale cauliflower has suffered in comparison. But it's full of folic acid and vitamin B6."

Sales of traditional veg rallied somewhat five years ago thanks to the vogue for locally sourced ingredients and classic British dishes.

But today, sales have fallen again - Brussels sprouts down 5.8% and cauliflowers down 2.9% in the past year, according to Kantar Worldpanel figures - and only four in 10 households still eat caulis.

Sales of British veg

Cauliflower cheese
  • Cauliflower, Brussels sprout, turnip and swede sales dropped from Jan 2010 to Jan 2011
  • But kale rallied, up 21% after falling 13% the previous year
  • And broccoli, carrots and cabbage have made modest gains

Source: Kantar Worldpanel

Tellingly, those keen to reawaken our love of caulis, cabbage and sprouts typically lace their recipes with strong-tasting ingredients such as chilli, garlic, bacon or stinky cheeses (not all in the same dish).

Cooks in India used similar tactics when colonial Britons introduced the cauliflower to the sub-continent. Revved up with cumin, ginger and mustard seeds, aloo gobi - cauliflower and potato curry - was born.

Day's own pick for a national vegetable? The garden pea.

It grows easily throughout Britain, and has done for centuries. Its name dates from Chaucer's time, when it was known as pease. In its dried form, the pea is the basis for traditional staples such as pease porridge. When eaten fresh, with little more than butter as a garnish, it was prized by Tudor kings and commoners alike as a welcome burst of bright green in summer.

"And then there was the miracle of frozen peas in the 1950s," says Day.

Proud Scots might nominate neeps and tatties - mashed swedes (or turnips) and potatoes - that are the traditional accompaniment to haggis.

But swedes are a European invention, a cross between a cabbage and a turnip thought to have originated from Scandinavia or Russia and introduced to Britain in the late 18th Century. As for the turnip, it has a long and illustrious history - in the Mediterranean. The Roman author Pliny the Elder praised it as "its utility surpasses that of any other plant".

What's in British veg

  • Cauliflower: vitamins C and K, folate and fibre
  • Brussels sprouts: rich in vitamin C and folic acid
  • Cabbage: high in iron and potassium
  • All benefit from shorter cooking times

Phillip Effingham, of the Brassica Growers Association, which runs a Love Your Greens campaign, says he associates four - not one - vegetables with British food.

"Cauliflower, cabbage, carrots and onions. If I had to choose one, in terms of sales, versatility and year-round production in Britain, it would come down to the carrot."

Not the white, knobbly wild carrots native to Britain. He means the orange carrot, developed in the Netherlands during the reign of William of Orange.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Most definitely the parsnip. When my father came to the UK he refused to eat them as they were "for the animals" back in Italy. The Germans and French shy away from them too. Yet, what's better than a roast parsnip? Suited to our ground frost climate too.

Rob, Cardiff, Wales

It has to be peas. The little round chaps have been my favourite since I was a child. Peas are on my plate, fresh or frozen, as they are; in soups with other vegetables for taste and colour; pea soup because it's fabulous; in curry, casseroles, with fish and chips, and in vegetarian shepherds pie.

Ruth, Bromley, Kent

We Brits seem to have let our veg die a bland, overcooked death, causing us to eat them only out of habit rather than pleasure. No matter how much we try to re-invent them, they will always come back wet, stringy and tasteless because they are seen as fillers on the side of something far more succulent. We should look to our neighbours, the creators of the zingy stir-fry, the bold veg curry, the rich moussaka, and treat our veg not as a plain side but an exciting main.

Rose Backhouse, Leeds

I'd vote for either the pea or curly kale. Why do we feed so much kale to cattle? It's a wonderful veg, full of flavour and with more iron than spinach. It's also great sprayed with oil and roasted for two minutes in the oven - lovely!

Sally, Winchester

I'm happy to adopt spuds as our national veg.

Simon Howes, London

It ought to be properly cooked cabbage. This was popular in medieval times and unlike most of the vegetables lining supermarket shelves was home grown.

Pedro, UK

If we were to sacrifice sentimentality and nostalgia for reality, the British vegetable would be the frozen pea, or the tinned baked bean.

Tim, London

The national vegetable should be the swede - only we the Brits use it for human consumption. Or the parsnip, which in French supermarkets is only stocked for the resident Brits.

George Alexander, Lagos, Nigeria

Carrot and swede mashed together with plenty of pepper. The best ever to accompany a traditional roast with thick gravy.

Julie Hammond, Plymouth

Where is the humble marrow in all of this? This is believed to have a lineage back to Chaucer as well, and has been a staple in much of Britain's diet prior to the advent of the potato.

Nic Holc, Havant, UK

Somebody has to speak up for the patch of full-blown and bursting cabbages or the British broadbean. One of the things to do before you die #927: find a footpath in the Garden of Kent and walk through a fields of broadbeans.

Isabel, London

As the graffiti on the M25 bridge reads: "Give PEAS a chance".

David White, Ipswich

The tomato is a fruit and therefore Italy is to be disqualified immediately. Second my vote is to claim the humble garden pea as our own - small but mighty like this great nation of ours.

Sir Vincent of Rodriguez, Manchester

It has to be the potato - the key unalterable vegetable in shepherds pie, weekend roasts, fish pie, Lancashire hot-pot, mince and tatties, Irish stew, soups, fish and chips. From spring's Jersey Royals to the soft starch-filled old of winter, from paupers mash to the rich's game chips - it's just key, and our major 'umami' flavour giver. And the reason I've never managed to do the Atkins Diet.

Julian, London

Can I, with tears in my eyes, advance the case for the onion? What sort of British dystopia could countenance roast beef without onion gravy, bland shepherd's pie, or life with no onion black pudding? And a hundred thousand chip shops would be empty without their jar of pickled globes of joy. One would not have to be a chromniomancer to foresee the resultant misery.

Laurence Mann, Twickenham

The runner bean. Not a climbing bean or a freench bean, but the runner bean. Fresh. Not overcooked. Wonderful. What about celery and celeriac? And from my boyhood home on the Essex coast - samphire.

Alan, Tonbridge, Kent

My dad used to grow tomatoes every year in our back garden so to me they'll always be Scottish. That aside, I'd nominate Brussels sprouts as a national vegetable. Don't we all hate them?

Robert, Kinross, UK

Our nation vegetable should be the carrot. They come in all shapes and sizes, can add flavour and colour to any dish and can be eaten either cooked or raw. Hurray for the carrot.

Helen Murray, Merseyside

For balance, can anyone imagine Asian cuisine without the chilli? Brought to India from South America by the Portuguese 400 years ago. Likewise tomatoes, without which Italian cuisine wouldn't get far were brought to Europe by the Spanish from South America in the 15th Century.

Peter, Notts

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