Canadians like cauliflower. No, we really like it: A recent marketing report on the global cauli market ranked Canada as the second-largest cauliflower importer in the world.
And with cauliflower nudging kale aside as a contender for the next hot vegetable – last week, a New York Times food writer declared that the veg was "shaping up as a star of this winter season" – wildly fluctuating prices are causing angst across the country.
Just 10 days ago, an organic head was $8.99 and conventional stuff hovered around $6.99 in downtown Toronto. This past weekend, conventional cauli dropped in some Ontario stores to $5, while in Vancouver, prices were already back to what shoppers were used to.
The cost of the beloved brassica may hold in this range, says John Bishop, director of purchasing for Fresh Start Foods, but when it comes to veg prices this season, "We're not out of the woods." Such uncertainty makes it hard to make a meal plan, not to mention hampering healthy eating for those on a food budget.
So how did our beloved cauliflower come to cost as much as a pound of grass-fed ground beef?
The answer is what you might expect: There hasn't been enough of the stuff on the market to meet demand. Bishop blames an El Nino weather system that has brought cold and wet conditions to cauliflower-growing areas in the United States and Mexico.
"It's been very rainy and a lot of cold nights. It's really slowed down growth," he says. Add to that any damage caused by Hurricane Patricia in Mexico in the fall – and the plunging buying power of the Canadian dollar – and you get sticker shock.
"I've been doing this for 35 years and I've never seen a market like this," Bishop says. Ironically, U.S. growers scaled back cauliflower production last year, anticipating a market flooded by Mexican product, he says.
Another problem is that cauliflower won't grow just anywhere. "It's a fussy crop," says Angus Mellish of Veseys Seeds, which supplies cauliflower seed to growers in the Maritimes.
You could call it Goldilocks's favourite vegetable: It likes it hot, but not too hot – and then cold, but not too cold, either. A farmer has to consider climate before choosing to plant it.
When farmers do sow cauliflower, bad weather can easily get in the way of quality. "If the conditions aren't there, the growers have to leave it in the field, because people want perfect cauliflower," Mellish says. No one likes brown spots on their white-fleshed veg.
China, India and Italy are the world's top three largest growers, but produce importers looking for more stock haven't been able to call up suppliers in those countries. That cauliflower is already contracted to be sold to big companies, says Nick Nasturzio, a vegetable buyer who's been getting calls from friends and family about the spike. "Priority customers, the processors, are No. 1. The fresh market suffers," he says. Quebec grows a lot of Canada's cauliflower but, obviously, farmers there can't help to meet demand now.
The unpredictable cost of cauliflower is now rippling out beyond the supermarket. Anthony Rose, owner of five Toronto restaurants, recently took his celebrated cauliflower dish off the menu at one of them, Fat Pasha.
Up until a month ago, Rose says he was selling the head of roasted cauliflower stuffed with Halloumi cheese and topped with tahini sauce, pine nuts and pomegranate seeds for about $25. Now, he says, he'd have to charge almost double that, so he's replaced it with squash, dressed similarly. "People love the cauliflower and miss it," he says. "The high price means I will not sell it."
Food-growing, of course, is unlike other commodity markets, where businesses can quickly respond to price signals and produce more to meet demand. Farmers can't jump on the hot prices to turn a quick profit: They have to plan far in advance, choosing what to plant based on last season, then waiting to see if the weather works with or against them.
For the rest of us, the talk about cauliflower may soon return to questions of whether to eat it raw or roasted.