John Randolph recorded in his 18th-century Treatise on Gardening that cauliflower must be sown “critically to a day” or successful growth could not be guaranteed.
For spring planting in Virginia, according to Randolph, that day was April 12, or Sept. 12 for fall. Wesley Greene didn’t speculate whether those dates were hard and fast in his Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way. But Greene does advise that the plants grow best at temperatures between 58 and 68 degrees, so temperatures within 85 days of planting must be taken into account for a successful harvest.
Greene tells us that cauliflower was first described in England by John Gerard in 1597 as one of the finest members of the cabbage family. Centuries later, Mark Twain would call cauliflower “nothing but cabbage with a college education,” hinting at its expense during Victorian times.
Cauliflower was considered a bit of an extravagance in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, too. Many authors of the time period list it as one of the delicacies found in the gardens of gentlemen. Its elite status was due to the difficulty of raising cauliflower. Greene calls it “one of the more demanding residents of the kitchen garden.”
Historic Foodways apprentice Tiffany Fisk agrees.
“Cauliflower has been grown in Italy since the 15th century,” Fisk said. “It’s primarily a gentleman’s garden plant because it takes so much time and space to grow.” Although it is labor-intensive, Fisk said cauliflower most certainly would have been found in 18th-century Williamsburg because it was the capital city, and there were plenty of gentry living in the area. Today, it is grown in the Palace Garden and in the Colonial Garden, across from Bruton Parish Church on Duke of Gloucester Street.
Fisk discovered an 18th-century recipe that looks surprisingly like a recipe from cookbooks of the 1950s. But in a nod to the Italians, who cherished cauliflower, this recipe uses Parmesan cheese instead of American.
“Cauliflower makes a great substitute for rice or potatoes,” said Travis Brust, executive chef of the Williamsburg Inn. “It’s lower in calories, is more flavorful and has a silky, smooth texture in recipes.”
Cauliflower is one thing Brust does not grow in his own garden, for exactly the reason it appeared primarily in the gardens of the gentry. “It takes too much space and too much time!” But he enjoys cooking with it and likes the varieties, including purple, orange and green in addition to the traditional white cauliflower. The colorful varieties can be used in any recipe that calls for white cauliflower.
“A fresh cauliflower should feel heavy for its size. If it is too light, that means it is drying out. Check for mildew on the flowerets,” he said.
Cauliflower is on the menu at the Williamsburg Inn, where a soup appetizer is just one of the selections.
“It’s creamy and smooth, garnished with kale pesto, pine nuts and Parmesan,” Brust said. The Inn also serves Romanesco broccoli, part of the same Brassica family as cauliflower. “It is unique because it has the naturally repeating geometric form of a fractal. It’s become a real star on our menu.”
Because of its crunchiness and mild flavor, cauliflower has become a popular vegetable in recent years. It can be used in place of foods containing gluten or with higher carbohydrates such as pasta and pizza crust, appealing to diners seeking those options. Brust suggests roasting and slicing cauliflower, which works well with marinades and spices. “For a real treat, substitute cauliflower for half of the pasta next time you make macaroni and cheese.”
Brust shares his own crowd-pleasing recipe for what he calls “a pillowy, velvety” purée of cauliflower, topped with seared ocean scallops and garnished with cashews and herbs.