When you slice open a head of red cabbage, the result is a beautiful, fine striation of red and white. The colour, however, is deceptive. It is confined to the ?skin? of each leaf and does not penetrate to the cells below, which remain white.

The exact hue also varies ? some red cabbages are a very bright reddish-purple, while others seem to have a blue tint to them, depending on the pH of the soil upon which they are grown. On acidic soils, the colour of cabbages is more red, while on the alkaline soils cabbages will be more blue.

The juice of the red cabbage can also be used to make a pH indicator. When cooked, red cabbage turns blue ? unless some acid or acidic fruit is added to the mix, when the colour turns a magnificent royal purple, which seems to suit its rich flavour.

A member of the Brassica family, the red cabbage falls under the Brassica oleracea species, which includes many of the other hard-headed cabbages, such as the white cabbage and the savoy cabbage. The name ?cabbage? actually comes from the old French caboche, meaning ?head?.

The introduction of cabbages to Europe is generally attributed to the Romans, but, given the wide variety of Celtic names ? kohl in German, chou in French, kopi in Hindi, and many others relating to the Celtic cap or kap, meaning head ? it seems likely that the Celts may have been the ones responsible for the spread of this staple vegetable.

Red cabbage was first described in England in 1570, but it is thought to have been grown there since the Middle Ages. The Frenchman Jacques Cartier introduced it to Canada on his third trip, as early as 1541, and doubtless it became as popular there as it was in north-western Europe, though there is no written record of it until 1669.

Red cabbage was especially popular in north-western Europe, as it survived the winter far better than ordinary white cabbage, which must be made into sauerkraut if it is to be of any nutritional value. Until the 19th century, the poor red cabbage was rarely cooked in any other way than pickling, which not only stripped the vegetable of its vitamin benefits, but also of any taste it may have had.

In central Europe, red cabbage has long been popular stewed and served with pork or game. Everyone has his or her own version of this recipe and the ingredients differ from place to place, as they do from family to family. We always eat stewed red cabbage with haze peper, as jugged hare is known in the Netherlands, and our recipe is made with onions, apples (both cooking and sweet), cloves, some brown sugar and butter. Other recipes I have experienced ? though none is as good as ours, of course ? included raisins, bits of ham or bacon, orange juice, vinegar and cinnamon.

Like all the brassicas ? which include Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli ? red cabbage is among the most beneficial of vegetables. All the brassicas contain nutrients that are known to help against cancer and heart disease. They are also rich in what is known as the ?beauty mineral?: sulphur. We all know what sulphur smells like, however, so perhaps it is sulphur that causes another after-effect of consuming red cabbage or any other member of the Brassica family: wind. It is easy enough to reduce this effect, however. Simply blanche the cabbage leaves ? or flowers in the case of broccoli and cauliflower ? in some boiling water for a minute and then drain and cook them as usual.

Red cabbage with chestnuts

This is a richer, more elaborate version of stewed red cabbage and is delicious with any game.

Ingredients

? 1 large onion ? 1 red cabbage

? cloves ? 2 cooking apples ? 1tbsp dark brown sugar ? 6oz chestnuts

? 2tbsp butter ? stock or water

Method

1. Slice the onions, cabbage and apples and put all the ingredients into a heavy-based saucepan.

2. Simmer for an hour or so, until the cabbage and chestnuts are cooked.

Red cabbage coleslaw

This adds a dash of colour to an otherwise rather pale winter salad ? the lemon juice prevents everything turning blue. The name of coleslaw comes from the Dutch. ?Kool? means cabbage and ?sla? means salad?

Ingredients

? red cabbage ? carrots ? onions ? sugar ? lemon ? mayonnaise or vinaigrette

Method

1. Thinly slice the vegetables and mix.

2. Sprinkle with sugar and lemon and dress with mayonnaise or vinaigrette.