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Le chou dans tous ses états

Chou de Saint-Saens (JP Thorez)Si l'un des plus beaux choux est natif de Saint-Saëns, en Normandie, la famille semble s'être diversifiée en Italie. Il faut dire que l'espèce, très plastique sur le plan génétique, se prête à toutes les fantaisies des sélectionneurs.
Le chou est l'un des rares légumes dont l'ancêtre sauvage soit visible dans notre pays. Allez sur la côte normande, à Étretat, et vous verrez exposées aux embruns, sur le rebord des falaises dominant la Manche, les rosettes pruineuses de Brassica oleracea ou chou potager. Il s'agit là de la plus importante colonie française de cette plante considérée par les botanistes comme patrimoniale et en déclin. Au printemps, on voit là des choux sauvages en train de fleurir, et d'autres tout petits, en forme de rosette, nés l'année précédente, comme pour nous rappeler que l'espèce est bisannuelle. Feuilles entières ou feuilles découpées, nervures blanches ou violettes... on a sous les yeux toutes les variations d'une plante qui semble avoir la plasticité de la pâte à modeler. Un vrai bonheur, peut-on imaginer, pour les anciens paysans qui se sont attelés à la domestication et à la diversification de l'espèce. Le chou a probablement été consommé très tôt, en Europe, à l'état sauvage. Ce seraient les Celtes de l'âge du bronze qui, les premiers, l'auraient mis en culture, il y a environ trois mille ans.

Né en Méditerranée occidentale
Faut-il déduire de la présence de choux sauvages en Normandie que le 'Précoce de Louviers', le chou 'de Saint-Saëns', et autres variétés normandes sont directement issues de ces sauvageons du pays de Caux ? Certainement pas. En effet, nos beaux choux pommés, qu'ils soient cabus (feuilles lisses) ou « de Milan » (feuilles cloquées), proviendraient d'Italie, à l'époque de la Renaissance. Cette même péninsule nous donnera, plus tard, d'autres jolies variétés de Brassica oleracea baptisées botrytis, mais plus connues sous les noms de choux-fleurs et brocolis. Ce ne sont pas, comme les choux pommés, d'énormes bourgeons terminaux, mais des inflorescences monstrueuses que l'on consomme avant leur épanouissement. Le véritable berceau de ce roi des légumes est la Méditerranée occidentale, où coexistent différentes espèces sauvages qui se sont à la longue hybridées. Les Romains appréciaient le chou, auquel ils prêtaient avec raison de nombreuses vertus. Leurs descendants ont continué d'améliorer l'espèce...

Chou sauvage (JP Thorez)Choux rustiques
Les choux sauvages du Nord n'auraient-ils inspiré personne dans les temps anciens ? C'est peu probable, et il y a fort à parier que les choux d'allure rustique que nous connaissons en sont les héritiers : choux « à vaches », choux de Bruxelles, chou de Jersey, chou frisé, chou-rave... Aucun n'est pommé. Ce sont les feuilles, de petits bourgeons, voire même pour certains la tige charnue, plus ou moins renflée, que l'on consomme. Tous sont forts en goût et plutôt coriaces, d'une grande rusticité au froid et d'une résistance absolue aux insectes et champignons pathogènes (ce qui n'est pas le cas de leurs délicats cousins d'origine transalpine). La diversification des variétés de choux est relativement tardive en France. Olivier de Serres, notre cher agronome cévenol, n'en connaissait vers 1600 qu'un petit nombre de sortes, essentiellement des « verts », des « blancs » et des « cabus » ! Il n'évoque qu'à titre de curiosités les choux-fleurs, les choux rouges et les choux-raves. C'est le développement du maraîchage périurbain et de la graineterie, au XIXe siècle, qui pousse à créer sans cesse de nouvelles sortes de plus en plus attrayantes : Aubervilliers, Étampes, Pontoise près de Paris, Quevilly près de Rouen, ont les leurs, sans oublier que des provinces entières, comme l'Alsace ou l'Auvergne, fondent leur alimentation - et leur gastronomie - sur le chou. La choucroute et la potée ou soupe au chou deviennent des bases de la gastronomie, et restent très prisées quelques siècles plus tard.

Merveille alimentaire
Le Français, nous disent les statistiques, dédaignerait de plus en plus le chou dans ses formes les plus rustiques (choux pommé et de Bruxelles), au profit du brocoli et du chou-fleur. Soit. Le tout est qu'il continue de faire la part belle, dans son assiette, au genre Brassica, qui est une sorte de merveille alimentaire. Fibres, provitamine A, vitamines C et E sont notablement présentes dans cette famille de légumes. On connaît les vertus protectrices de ces micronutriments pour la santé en général, tout comme celles - spécifiques du cancer, si l'on en croit de nombreuses recherches - des composés soufrés spécifiques des crucifères.


Gérard Mallet (M Rocher)Gérard Mallet et Jean-Paul Thorez
Article paru dans Jardins de France en 2009


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