Kohlrabi gets its name from the German words for “cabbage” and “turnip,” and this bulbous vegetable tastes a bit like a combination of the two.
For a time, the humble kohlrabi fell out of culinary favor and was relegated to the status of animal fodder. But food shortages spread across central and western Europe from the late 1930s through the end of World War II, and easy-to-grow, nutritious crops like rutabaga, Jerusalem artichoke and kohlrabi reappeared on dinner tables out of necessity.
Despite its shape, kohlrabi isn’t a root vegetable. Rather, it’s a member of the Brassicae oleracea family, and descended from wild cabbage. Around the 8th century, it’s likely that an astute monastery gardener in Germany noticed the short and swollen stems of some leaf cabbages and began saving seeds and selecting for that trait.
Kohlrabi (as “ravacaulos”) got its first mention in 812, when the Emperor Charlemagne published guidelines governing the management of the Holy Roman Empire’s properties. Article 70 of the “Capitulaire de Villis,” as it was called, was mainly devoted to farming and to crops that would promote better nutrition among the people of the empire. Monasteries were essentially tasked with being the “agricultural extension services” of the time. Each was to have three types of gardens: “herbularius,” the herb garden; “hortus,” the vegetable garden; and “viridarium,” the orchard.
Many contemporary monasteries have kept this tradition alive, and medieval gardens can be admired at Saint-Gall Monastery and Saint-George Abbey in Stein-am-Rhein, Switzerland. The Jardin Carolingien de Melle in the Deux-Sevres region of western France is a unique example of what a garden from the time of Charlemagne would look like.
The kohlrabi group was further separated into “white” and “blauer.” The “blauer” sub-group has a purplish skin and some purple coloring on the stems and leaves.
The Vilmorin Andrieux seed catalog of 1883 mentions two purple kohlrabi varieties: Früher Blauer Wiener and Blauer Ulmer. At that time, “blauer” varieties were known for their early and fast autumn production and recommended for harvest small, lest they become fibrous and stringy. Because of their short growing cycle, they may be used for successive plantings.
The “Blauer Speck” variety was introduced for sale in 1914. It rapidly overtook older varieties throughout Central Europe and spread widely during the Second World War.
Its smaller leaf size made for compact, higher density planting. It was also less prone to cracking, and it stored much better than the older varieties. Some newer varieties later came into favor, including the “Dunkelblauer Wiener Speck” in Austria and the “Blauer Delly,” which Seed Savers Exchange acquired in the 1990s.
It’s likely that German immigrants brought kohlrabi seeds to Midwestern states such as Wisconsin when they began settling there in the mid-19th century.
But kohlrabi has also spread far beyond its European roots. In northern India, it’s a staple of the vegetarian diet. And it’s found a niche market on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where it’s known as “kouloumpra.”
Try this easy growing, easygoing variety in your garden!
Find Blauer Speck kohlrabi seeds here.