I escaped cabbage as often as I could when young. At lunchtime – obstinately called dinnertime at grammar school – the bouquet of vegetal flatulence would emanate from our canteen with the same familiarity as the precursory dinner bell. Our squadron of dinner ladies, whose rigorous approach to boiling left all legumes clinging to what had once been a culinary purpose, made sure that not only were our brassicas cooked, they were ritually sacrificed.

Red cabbage, which had a tendency to set prior to lunchtime service and exhibited more in common with compost than cuisine, was unexpectedly to reappear in my life once I had pushed off to art school. There, often whilst undertaking photography, graphic design, or still life classes, a red cabbage was frequently cleaved in two and set up to be visually immortalised in whatever medium we were pressed to examine. In the early ‘70’s you could hardly walk down an art school corridor without catching sight of a screen-print or an oil painting featuring the papal colours of a bisected brassica. And it was the sight of the cabbage that came to generate my astonishing culinary apostasy. Having avoided eating the stuff for so long, now, with an unexpectedly renewed interest, I was moved to try it once again. Not so easy to buy and not so easy to find on restaurant menus in those days, but thanks to one of my former sculpture tutors, Lithuanian born, Notting Hill resident Antanas Brazdys, I was introduced to an unassuming Russian/Polish café near my student flat in Ladbroke Grove. A down-at-heel, yet authentic and inexpensive eatery that had stood since the war but was soon to be swept into oblivion by a faux French and conspicuously unsuccessful bistro set up by TV darling of the day; Antony Worrell-Thompson. Antanas and I both mourned its passing.

My rediscovery of braised red cabbage, only months before the decline and fall of that unique little café, was a welcome awakening. Although the dish borders on the ubiquitous in many cultures, Germany and Austria claiming origination, I subsequently followed my nose to a Russian cookbook and have remained faithful ever since.

Please to the Table – The Russian Cookbook (1990) by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman

Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage [Kislosladkaya Krasnaya Kapusta]

50 g unsalted butter
180 g chopped onions
1 large, firm head, red cabbage, (about 1.3 kg) shredded
100 ml raspberry, cherry or cider vinegar
180 ml chicken stock
1 large cooking apple, peeled cored and sliced
80 g dried currants
80 ml dry cider
5 cloves
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Melt the butter in a large Dutch oven over medium heat
Add the onions and sauté, stirring occasionally, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes
Add the cabbage and cook, stirring and tossing, for about 10 minutes
Add the vinegar and stock, then reduce the heat to low and cook, covered for 20 minutes
Add the remaining ingredients, cover and simmer for about 1¼ hours
Adjust the seasoning, adding more salt or vinegar if desired, and serve

Wine thoughts

In case you haven’t got the memo yet, it seems that these days, people are eating less meat.

It’s not just that braised red cabbage is heaven sent for the game season – delicious with partridge or pheasant – it also stands up for itself against the richness of turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas too. But when it comes to vegetable dishes, few wine drinkers want a huge, oak-driven fruit bomb exploding in their mouth. They want refreshment and they want restrained savoury wines that sensitively partner earthy vegetables – in preference to the ubiquitous, fruity wines that start hand-to-hand fighting at the dinner table.

For me Cabernet Franc is another victim of modern, brand building wine companies. Mention Chinon, Saumur-Champigny or St-Nicholas de Bourgueil in casual conversation, and I can predict the glazed look that begins to stare back at you. Cabernet Franc, although still one of the blending grapes used in expensive clarets, tends to be made most expressively as a stand-alone variety in the towns above and has its own singular ‘green’ personality. Hints of tobacco leaves, herbs, green pepper and olives frequently feature coupled with a long finish of invigorating berry fruits. A perfect medium-bodied red for this dish, and because of its less than fashionable persona, good value too. Do please try a bottle of Bourgueil next time you’re near an enlightened wine shop.