Last year, while travelling overland through Turkey to meet our son who was teaching in Georgia, my husband and I stopped for a couple of nights in the predominantly Kurdish town of Kars. Set on a high altitude steppe, a bit like something out of Mongolia, Kars is probably best known for its honey and cheese, but it was the cabbages that caught my eye. They were seriously enormous. I remember them as being the size of four very large New Zealand drumheads but, because I am sometimes prone to exaggeration, I checked this out with my more conservative husband. He said that, at the time, he estimated the Kars cabbages to be all of half a metre in diameter. I don't know what variety they were but it was coming into autumn so I imagine they had been grown over the summer and were awaiting a drenching in vinegar to preserve them for the winter.
I spent many years being confused about cabbages – what variety to grow when – and consequently, had a few disasters with the Chinese variety running to seed, the Savoys refusing to heart up, the springs lurching into mid summer before they were ready to eat, and not a cabbage to speak of in winter. I've got my head round it now, though, which is just as well because cabbage is welcome in my kitchen at any time of year. This is how it goes.
Spring cabbages (those gorgeous conical, peppery flavoured ones with the lime-green outer leaves and loose pale lemony inner leaves) are, as you might have guessed, ready in spring. But to have them then, you must plant them out in the garden at the end of summer. Spring cabbages are to die for – they are the first really fresh piece of new season's green in the garden, and the very best thing you can do with them is steam them and douse them with butter and freshly ground black pepper.
Fast growing Chinese cabbages can also be a spring green but you must sow the seed directly into the ground at the end of winter or at the very first hint of spring. And even then there is the risk they will run to seed if the heat comes on too quickly, too strongly.
Summer cabbages (planted in the garden in mid to late spring and throughout summer itself) come in a wide range of varieties from the conical to the ball shaped. There are large roundy ones and the smaller "space-savers" which can be either conical or ball shaped. I prefer smaller cabbages for summer because there are so many other leafy greens ready at the same time that you really only want a cabbage now and then for a change. Although traditionalist will tell you that red cabbages are for winter, I find that they do just as well planted out at the same time as summer cabbages. Summer cabbages will usually "hold" well into autumn. Mind you, I live in a cooler part of the country.
Chinese cabbages can be sown directly into the ground as soon as the heat goes out of summer. They will grow on into autumn with less risk of running to seed than if sown in early spring.
For a winter supply, drumheads are traditionally the ones to go for – as well as red cabbages. Plant both in late summer, and plenty of them, as they may be the only fresh greens you have to see you through the colder months unless you are also growing silver beet, or leeks (which I never really think of as greens). For a true winter-keeper, however, it is the Savoy that you must steer towards. These are the crinkly-leaved, vibrant green cabbages that are always referred to in French recipes and which look stunning as a liner for a terrine. Plant them at the very end of summer.
Within this wide range of seasonal cabbages there are numerous different varieties so you really must read seed packets carefully and always allow 4-5 weeks from sowing until the time the seedlings are required in the garden. If you enjoy cabbages, and follow this simple guide, there is no reason why you should ever be without one, and if ever you want advice on how to grow the largest cabbages in the world, I recommend you find a Turkish interpreter and head for Kars, in autumn.