A year in our kitchen
A Season for Everything:
The year begins with the beat of the humble beetroot (beta vulgaris). This root vegetable grows underground all through the winter, survives the frosts and provides exceptional nutritional value and a shock of colour just when the season is most bleak. The beet leaves are edible too; either raw, cooked like greens, or used as garnish. We roast beetroot with balsamic vinegar, we pickle them to serve in beet & halloumi burgers, and we dry them for beetroot crisps.
Wild rabbit (oryctolagus cuniculus) has was brought to Britain for meat and fur by the Normans in the 12th century. The rabbit’s rapid breeding cycle and the natural abundance of the vegetation that sustains it have contributed to the establishment of a successful wild population. We serve wild rabbit jointed, rubbed in garlic, parsley and olive oil then barbequed.
All through the winter Britain cries out for a native fruit, until the beginning of the rhubarb (rheum rhabarbarum) season in the garden. Our only dessert vegetable, rhubarb is hardy, easy to grow and thrives almost anywhere sunny. In some conditions it grows so fast you can actually hear it creaking. Don’t eat the leaves – they are bursting with toxic oxalic acid. We use our rhubarb stems for rhubarb & ginger jam, a perfect accompaniment to roast pork.
You know spring has begun when you catch the unmistakable scent of ramsons, or wild garlic (allium ursinum) in the hedgerows, woodlands and shady lanes. This plant is easy to forage across Britain – only patches of the Scottish Highlands and Ireland are without it – with a wonderful fragrance and flavour to help you find it. The large, flat, shiny leaves look similar to the poisonous lily-of-the-valley (convallaria majalis), to take care to identify the distinctive flowers that are blooming by April. Garlic flowers appear like an exploding firework of tiny white stars, unlike the drooping bells of the lily. Wild garlic can be eaten raw or cooked, and is milder and sweeter than the mediterranean garlic we have grown used to. We wilt the leaves into a wild garlic aioli with homemade mayonnaise. We use the startling peppery edible flowers in salads and garnishes.
From St George’s Day to the end of June you can harvest English asparagus. Outside this time if you see asparagus for sale it is likely to be green asparagus all the way from China or Peru. It has grown in England (but not elsewhere in the UK) since the 16th century. May is the month for asparagus roasted with butter, salt and pepper.
Radishes are a peppery, crisp and crunchy little root vegetable from the mustard family, that made their way to Britain from China (via Egypt and Ancient Greece) over 500 years ago. Raphanus raphanistrum is easy and quick to grow, but woody if left too long in the ground, radishes’ traditional role was at an appetite stimulant and palette cleanser served raw with salt between courses. We like to pickle radishes in lime brine for a spectacular salad accompaniment.
One of the plants named in the 10th Century pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, fennel (foeniculum vulgare) is a curious kind of flowering carrot. Various parts of this aromatic plant are used in different ways – the aromatic aniseed/liquourice flavour of the notorious drink absinthe for example. In the summer we use bulb fennel, finely sliced with lemon to create a delicious stuffing for our famous porchetta.
When summer fruits are at their peak, we all love to see British strawberries served. The strawberry is in fact a ‘false fruit’, and the plant (fragana) is a member of the rose family first cultivated by the Romans as early as 200BC. Strawberries were prized by medieval Britons as an aphrodisiac and are still hailed by some as a natural tooth whitener! We prefer to surprise people with strawberries pickled in chilli brine and served with vanilla ice-cream. Look out for local strawberries, because imported ones have to be picked early and so they are pale and hard in comparison to the intense colour and flavour of the ones on our doorstep.
The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness brings perfectly paired bounty: game and orchard fruit. Game refers to wild animals and birds such as venison, rabbit, duck, pheasant and partridge. These meats are consistently sustainable, nutritious and high welfare and so are exactly what we like. September is the time for slow-cooked game with chutneys prepared from the abundance of fine ancient English apples and pears from the orchard.
The orchard also brings us ‘winter fruit’ such as medlar and quince. Medlar (mespius germanica but also, worryingly, “cul-de-chien” in France) is a tree that has been cultivated since Roman times. The fruit has a peculiar flavour that is both sweet and citrus, something like stewed apple. Quince (cydonia oblonga) was introduced to the Tower of London in 1275 by Edward I, and served alongside rich meat ever since. The quince fruit looks like a pear but lumpier, and although it is sour raw, it is ideal for traditional jellies to serve with game or cold meats.
Go nuts in November for some traditional British foraged foodstuffs: chestnuts and hazelnuts. Sweet Chestnuts (castenea sativa) are widely available and delicious, and not to be confused with horse chestnuts (conkers) which are not edible. The right nuts are found in prickly green sea-urchin pockets, with two or three teardrop shaped nuts inside. Hazelnuts (corylus avellana) are very common in our woodlands and hedgerows, if the squirrels are kind enough to leave you any. Both can be dry-roasted for snacking, or roasted and added to squash puree.
What is Christmas without Brussel Sprouts? The humble sprout (brassica oleracea) is really a kind of novelty miniature cabbage, and each serving has more vitamin C than an orange. Ideally suited to grow in the climates of Northern Europe, this winter vegetable became widely available in Britain in the late 1800s, so it makes sense that they have become a ubiquitous part of the Christmas traditions we inherited from the Victorians. If you think they smell and taste bad, it’s probably because they’ve been over-boiled. Instead try them halved and roasted with salt, pepper and bacon lardons.
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