The cabbage in question is named Melissa, and she is a savoy variety. You don’t see savoy cabbages so much in the stores. The smooth head varieties like Stonehead, Golden Acre and Danish Ballhead seem to dominate the commercial market. Around here, exotic cabbage texture seems to be reserved for the Asian greens, with Napa cabbage taking pride of place over the old reliable that is the savoy cabbage.
That’s a pity, since – as a rule – the savoys hold up beautifully to a Maritime Northwest winter, easily shrugging off temperatures in the high teens and months of drizzle. January King is a deservedly famous savoy variety known to be especially rugged in the winter garden. As its name implies, it hits its stride when snow is on the raised beds and frost is on the windows.
Melissa is a mid-season variety, and hence at her peak a bit earlier, but if you time her right she will coast into cooler weather at full size, holding harvestable in the semi-stasis of fall for weeks or months on end.
And the flavor? Perfect, in a word. Personally, the longer I garden the more my taste buds climb toward the robust and the hardy. The smack-me-up flavors of mustard greens and the sweet, minerally flavor and chewey texture of Kavalo Nero kale hold just as much charm to me as a delicate, melting butterhead lettuce or the universally appealing and unoffensive sweetness of a snap pea.
To my palate, the crinkled leaves of a savoy cabbage lean just a bit closer to its kale forbearers in flavor than the smooth coleslaw varieties one can buy in the store 365 days a year. I love cabbage in all its forms, and would turn down neither a dense softball of smooth leaves or the loose rosette of a blownup Napa. But after a hard frost, the savoys blossom in flavor, sweetening into something even a Cabbage Patch Kid would chew on eagerly.
There is something about the savoy varieties that says: this is the cabbage that kept your Irish ancestors from starving in the cold of winter. This is the cabbage that fed the Chinese who labored along the railroad. This is the cabbage the Dutch pickled for long sea voyages to hold scurvy at bay.
To be perfectly frank, I’ve no idea what variety cabbage the Irish, Chinese and Dutch survived on during their many trials, but as I hoist Melissa into my home on a clear November day, it feels like it must be the savoys that sustained them all.