And Now For Something Completely Different: Broccoflower Fractals

With imminent unemployment staring me in the face I’ve been rethinking my world. Well actually, I haven’t. In point of fact, yesterday Maisie and I spent a very pleasant day in London, listening to a lecture on May Morris at the Society of Antiquaries, followed by two unbelievably expensive cups of tea in cardboard cups (no teapot, I ask you…) and a single slice of carrot cake – and all for £8.00! We enjoyed this repast in the very cramped tea-room at the Royal Academy, surrounded by people with, I suspect, more money than sense. So we gulped it all down, made a smart exit and spent the rest of the afternoon with an old friend and publisher, about which more (probably much more), later.

This morning I got up, determined to write further about the sad demise of Time Team, but when it actually came to it, I’m afraid I couldn’t be arsed. I know it’s expected of me, but to hell with it. I don’t ‘do’ whinge. The decision’s been made and life must go on, which it does, I’m glad to say, in its characteristically chaotic fashion. Anyhow, I was staring at the screen trying to summon up enthusiasm for the blog, when a voice on the Today Programme started talking about some recent research in Spain which has revealed the mathematical configuration of biological structures. This followed on an excellent documentary I watched, and must watch again sometime, on information (Order and Disorder), presented by the physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili on BBC-4, yesterday at 9.00. It was excellent: well presented, non-patronising and full of information, like so many of the docs on that fine channel. All of this, the TV and the radio, reminded me of my vegetable garden and the extraordinary brassicas I’d grown under the impression they were ‘summer cauliflowers’ – as they were labelled in the garden centre.


The last head of our summer’s Romanesco

The first of these ‘summer cauliflowers’ was ready in mid-august and we cut the last one a week ago.  I’ve looked them up and it would appear they are known as Romanesco, and have, quite rightly, been awarded the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society. They’re also known as a form of Calabrese, broccoli or ‘Broccoflower’. Incidentally, the word broccoli comes from the Italian broccolo, a sprout. In actual fact Romanesco would appear to be an old form of Italian cauliflower. And like so many things from that most civilised of all countries, they’re superb and have been described as ‘heaven on a plate’. Try to get hold of old varieties and steer clear of F1 hybrids, which like most of the so-called broccoli sold in supermarkets, usually have very little flavour. First generation (F1) hybrids are strong, vigorous plants that respond well to loads of nitrate fertilizers. They look good, but taste of nothing.


Close up of the Romanesco, showing the floral structure of spirals-within-spirals

But back to those fractals. Fractals are mathematical entities of elegant simplicity, but enormous complexity. I can’t say I begin to understand them, but for further enlightenment on their application to archaeology go to: The Spanish physicists have shown that cauliflowers (in particular) clearly show the form of their mathematical structure (fractals) in the shape of their flowers – and nowhere is this better seen than in the spirals-within-spirals of Romanesco. Happily I took a couple of photos earlier, before I heard of the Spanish research, and I think you’ll agree they look wonderful. In fact it was almost a pity to eat them. But only almost: lightly boiled (I hate steaming, it doesn’t release all the flavour, and also gives us both severe wind), then quickly turned over in a very hot pan with olive oil and garlic, finally into a cool-ish oven for 5 minutes, and you’ve got a dish fit for a king. To be honest, it tastes much better – better, even than it looks. And that leads me to another thought for those brainy Spaniards to explain: what do we know about the mathematics of flavour?

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