Eating Fresh Right Now

‘Seasonality’ is one of the many hot words in restauranting these days, as it implies not only culinary nous about flavour peaks, but also a right-on environmental sensitivity to the cost of food miles, something we applaud.  Many of the restaurants on toptable use seasonal ingredients in the creation of their menus, some with scrupulous care, right down to the name of the beast on your plate.
But you’re not a restaurateur.  You’re a diner.  So what should you watch out for on menus right now to get the very best of the spring’s bounty?
Cauliflower Regular readers of the blog (and to them, we apologise for the recent holes in posting, big project on and we were seconded) may remember that cauliflower is a veg that we respect rather than love.  But if we’re eating it at all, right now is the time because the spring cauliflowers are the business and it’s having a bit of an ‘it’ moment and we’d hate to miss that.  Actually, cauliflower is one of the few veg that can be grown year-round in Britain – probably explains by it featured so heavily in school dinners.  The Cinnamon Club is doing interesting things with it right now.
Speaking of school dinners, why, when you eat it at school, is it ‘school dinner’, but when you bring it from home it’s ‘packed lunch’?
Jersey Royal New Potatoes Now here’s a veg that really has a season and it is now, baby.  These beautiful little spuds come from the Channel Islands, taste divine and need very little mucking about to make the best of them.  Bit of butter, bit of salt, some chives if you must, but do stop there.
Leeks Okay, some of you may have painful memories about leeks, along the lines of the school dinner/cauliflower ones, but it’s time to step out of the past and into the present, because these fine veg are right now peaking and they’re a million times better than you remember.  They are amazingly versatile, which is another way of saying that chefs can muck about with them quite a lot without ruining anything and that they take a lot of flavours, from lamb gravy to coriander.
Purple Sprouting Broccoli If we were French, we would have a national holiday dedicated to purple sprouting broccoli.  It’s first out of the ground after a winter of brown food.  Chefs adore this stuff with good reason: the flavour, the colour, the long, lean shape, and the bursting-with-freshness taste in your mouth.  The Romans cultivated it long ago, but it wasn’t until the past thirty years that we’ve paid proper attention to it.   Gordon Ramsay is a huge fan, and you’ll see it in virtually all his restaurants right now.
Asparagus Another veg that’s long and lean and fresh and full of flavour, asparagus has started to appear in the markets and on the menus.  Is there anything that says ‘English spring’ quite like new asparagus?  And have you seen what it looks like when it starts to poke its firm stalk out of the bare soil?  And yes, we meant that to be suggestive.  Martin Wishart is using the white version with truffle sauce for a seriously indulgent dish.
Rhubarb Yet another of the long and lean and fresh and full of flavour veg, rhubarb has a special place in the UK’s culinary heart.  The early forced rhubarb, sorry Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb, a European Union Protected Designation of Origin, is over and now the unforced type is coming into its own.   It’s full of micronutrients, is great for women’s health and can appear in desserts, as an accompaniment to meats or as a veg as the star of its own show.  If you’re buying it at the market and are tempted to treat the greens as if they were collard greens or something else frightfully healthful, DO NOT.  The stems are great but the leaves are poison.  Martin Wishart is featuring a trio assiette of rhubarb on his dessert menu at the moment.
Sea Trout Sea trout live an amazingly complex life, beginning in small streams and rivers as brown trout, then making their way to salt water where they grow to approximately ten times their freshwater size, change colour and name, then take advantage of the spring floods and high tides to make their way back to their hatching place to lay their own eggs.  And that’s the haiku version.  When they’ve returned to our rivers is a moment that fishermen anticipate for the entire year.  They’re an oily fish, good for your heart, related to salmon and their moment is now.
Lamb Anyone who listens to the Archers knows that lamb is in season right now because David and Ruth are rowing.   In culinary terms, the younger the lamb, the larger a percentage of its life has been given over to milk-feeding and a smaller amount to grass or grain feeding.  Some spring lamb is entirely milk fed, but we in the UK don’t see much of that, though the Greeks and northern Spanish are mad for it.    Spring lamb is tender and finely muscled and is, of course, the traditional centrepiece for Easter lunch, often accompanied by Jersey Royal new potatoes and asparagus.
And a special alert for shellfish-lovers: April is the last month with an ‘R’ in it for a long, long, long time to come.  We know a lot of you don’t hold with that old rule – which related more to shipping and spoilage than any inherent yumminess of the edibles – but crab, mussels and oysters are in season right now and we advise you to carpe diem, as ever.  Bentley’s Oyster Bar is one of the most reliable and fabulous restaurants for oysters and fish of every kind.