Turkey and Sprouts

I do feel sorry for the humble Brussels sprout. It’s that awkward dinner guest that no-one wanted to invite but ended up at the table anyway because it had nowhere else to go. So why do we bother with them? And do they really come from Brussels? Do turkeys actually have anything to do with Turkey?

The first part is no real mystery: Brussels sprouts are cultivated annually and come into season in the winter. They can withstand the frost and so would be available even in the bitterest of winters.

However, it does seem odd that one vegetable can come from such a specific place. In fact, a sort of precursor to the sprout was grown in Ancient Rome. But the sprout as we know it is indeed a product of Brussels, thanks to the cool climate. It is thought to have been cultivated there since the 13th century but the first record of the term comes from 1587.

Another key feature of our British Christmas dinner that’s not actually British at all is of course the turkey, but we all know turkey comes from North America, not Turkey. The key to this is that the word turkey was actually first used not to refer to the bird we eat at Christmas, but to guinea fowl, which were imported from Madagascar via Turkey by turkey merchants. The North American bird was introduced to Spain in 1523 by the conquistadors and then spread to the rest of Europe shortly after. By the 1550s it was recognised in English as turkey because it was thought to be related to the guinea fowl and by 1575 it became a popular main feature on our Christmas dinner plates.

So when it comes to tucking in on the 25th, you dinner dilemma is solved: sprouts are Belgian but turkeys aren’t Turkish.


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