From Culinary Dud To Stud: How Dutch Plant Breeders Built Our Brussels Sprouts Boom : The Salt Brussels sprouts used to be scorned. Now they're trendy. And one reason for their renaissance sits tucked away in a basement storage room in the Netherlands.

From Culinary Dud To Stud: How Dutch Plant Breeders Built Our Brussels Sprouts Boom

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Foods go in and out of style, but few of them have seen quite as dramatic a reputational renaissance as Brussels sprouts. Long scorned, now they're trendy - seriously. Sales have quintupled in the past decade. Part of the reason why is tucked away in a basement storage room in the Netherlands. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Steve Bontadelli makes his living growing Brussels sprouts. For a long time, though, he had trouble explaining exactly why.

STEVE BONTADELLI: A lot of people of my generation hated them. Their mom boiled them and made them even stinkier.

CHARLES: His farm is near Santa Cruz, Calif., where the weather is perfect for growing these vegetables.

BONTADELLI: We actually had a Brussels sprouts festival here for 10 years. And we got a lot of free press out of the deal because people couldn't believe that anybody would have a festival for Brussels sprouts.

CHARLES: And the worst thing was they actually deserved their bad reputation.

BONTADELLI: They were just very bitter - very strong bitter taste.

CHARLES: This all started to change a few decades ago in the Netherlands, where Brussels sprouts have a simpler name.


CHARLES: This is Cees Sintenie. He's a plant breeder with a Dutch company called Bejo Seeds.

SINTENIE: At the moment, I'm a breeder of broccoli, Brussels sprouts and Chinese cabbage.

CHARLES: It started in the 1990s when a Dutch scientist figured out exactly which chemical compounds in spruitjes made them bitter. So then companies like Bejo Seeds went through their seed collections to see if any old varieties happened to have low levels of these bitter chemicals.

SINTENIE: We as a company, we have a whole gene bank here in our cellars with all the possible Brussels sprouts varieties that were available from the past.

CHARLES: There are hundreds of these old varieties. The companies grew them in test plots, and they did find some that were not as bitter. They cross-pollinated those old varieties with modern, high-yielding ones, trying to combine the best genetic traits of old and new. It took many years, but it worked.

SINTENIE: From then on, the taste was much better. It really improved. I can say that.

CHARLES: Word spread in the professional culinary scene. Shannan Troncoso remembers hearing about a decade ago that another chef, David Chang, was doing amazing things with Brussels sprouts and bacon at his restaurant Momofuku in New York. Then she encountered some crispy fried Brussels sprouts at a restaurant in San Francisco.

SHANNAN TRONCOSO: It was so good that I was like, I can figure this out, and I can introduce this back into my area.

CHARLES: So when Troncoso launched her own restaurant, Brookland's Finest Bar and Kitchen, in a neighborhood of northeast Washington, D.C., they were on the menu from Day 1. Her version is like Brussels sprouts chips.

TRONCOSO: We peel the leaves - like, each individual tiny, little leaf off.

CHARLES: Then just drop a basket of these leaves into the fryer.


TRONCOSO: Once they get a little bit brown, they're done. And then we're going to toss them with a little bit of lemon juice and some sea salt.

CHARLES: People had to be talked into ordering this at first, she says. Now it's one of her most popular dishes. This has been happening all over the past five years or so, and the world has changed for Steve Bontadelli back on the farm in Santa Cruz.

BONTADELLI: Lo and behold, all of a sudden, we're on cooking shows.

CHARLES: There is so much demand for Brussels sprouts, farmers are getting four or five times as much money for them as they did a decade ago.

BONTADELLI: My dad - his jaw would just drop. He'd ask me every day, what's the price? What's the price? 'Cause he'd been in the business his whole life. And his eyes would just pop out when I'd tell him. He couldn't believe it.

CHARLES: Just a few years ago, there were only about 2,500 acres of Brussels sprouts in the whole country. Today, it's five times that in the U.S., and fields are getting planted in Mexico, too, so people can get their Brussels sprouts year-round.

Dan Charles, NPR News.


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