Croatia has some of its food products protected at both a national and European level, their status designated by their unique place of origin. Varaždin cabbage (Varaždinsko zelje) is just one of them.
Located in the extreme north of Croatia, on the southern banks of the Drava river, the city of Varaždin was once the country's capital, until a fire necessitated the administration be moved to Zagreb. Today, it is best known for its old city buildings, the Varaždin Baroque Evenings (an annual music festival held since 1971) and the ten-day ŠpancirFest, which marks the end of summer.
The nearby city of Krapina famously has a museum dedicated to Neanderthals. Its construction was prompted by the famous archaeologist Dragutin Gorjanović-Krambergerto's discovery there of the largest collection of Neanderthal fossils in the world. However, it was in the Vindija cave in Donja Voća, very close to Varaždin, where the world's best-preserved Neanderthal remains were found. Some were as old as 30,000 years. Varaždin is also known for its cabbages, which are produced in large quantities around the city.
Although not nearly as ancient as the Neanderthals, the cultivation of cabbages is extremely old indeed. The vegetable has grown in the wild for tens of thousands of years, if not hundreds. The immediate forebear of the ones we see on plates today grew on cool, damp, rocky cliffs by the coast, thriving in locations away from any other plant life. This ostracism was seriously observed by the ancient Greeks who were convinced that cabbages would damage vineyards. They strictly kept the plants far apart, lest the cabbage impart any flavour to their grapes. This theory persists around the Meditteranean today.
There are records of cabbage appearing in the Chinese menu as early as 4000 BC, but a version of the varieties we now recognise in European cuisine was most likely domesticated in Europe sometime before 1000 BC. Throughout history, cabbage has been acclaimed for its medicinal properties. In ancient China they claimed it to be a cure for baldness. The ancient Greeks used it as a laxative, as an antidote for mushroom poisoning, for eye salves and as a liniment for bruises. The ancient Egyptians ate it as a starter to reduce the drunkenness caused by the wine they threw down with their mains.
Raw cabbage is today acknowledged as an excellent source of vitamins C, K and B6. It is also a good source of manganese, dietary fibre, potassium, vitamin B1, folate, copper, choline, phosphorus, vitamin B2, magnesium, calcium, selenium, iron, pantothenic acid, protein and niacin. Its consumption is proven to reduce the risk of cancer, improve brain and nervous system health, promote bone health, maintain blood pressure, detoxify the body, promote bowel regularity, regulate blood sugar level and promote weight loss. Other benefits include improving hair, skin and nail health, healing stomach ulcers and boosting the immune system.
Today, more than 400 varieties of cabbage are cultivated around the world. China is the largest producer of cabbage, followed by India and then Russia. The inhabitants of the latter annually consume the world's most cabbage per person, not that you could guess from the frequency with which the vegetable appears on Croatian tables.
The indigenous variety grown in the rich soils around Varaždin has long been a year-round part of locals' diets. Cultivated here since the second half of the 18th century, Varaždin cabbage can be grown as a spring cabbage, going on to appear grated in refreshing and simply-dressed summer salads. But, it is also hardy enough to withstand the extreme cold which can visit the region in winter. The leaves, which contain more than 90% water, have a sharp and pleasingly bitter flavour and are so durable that they stand up well to the lengthy cooking times of soups and stews.
Click here to find out what European recognition does for Croatian produce and see all of Croatia's best delicacies which are protected