Spring seems to finally be spluttering into life - like an old car with a crank handle, we keep winding through the days hoping the sun will start up and spread its warmth across the land. There are some very special things things that everyone should be looking out for in this brisk period between cold snaps and summer air...
The springtime is an amazing micro-season for life, the weather helps to shape a unique biodiversity of food that only comes around at this time of year. The funny thing being a chef means you are always looking forward to the next season. When we cook in Spring, we cannot await for the light touch of Summer produce, when in Summer, we look forward to the bounty the Autumn will bring. We are fickle people that get bored easily (well I can tell you I am), we always want to create something new. The beauty of Spring is that it is so fleeting in cooking terms that sadly, chefs usually go one of two ways - either miss the great produce by not accommodating it on their menus or by having said ingredients on all year round (cheers, Peru).
So I have definitely set myself up as some kind of Spring-douchebag-crusader with the above text, so at least let me give back by telling you what is good right now!
1. Asparagus - I was going to leave this until further down the list, but to be honest Asparagus is Asparagus. It's season is short-lived in the UK, and with every asparagus root (or crown if you're into your farming) produces just a few mighty spears each, and so farming it is a true labour of love. It used to be that Asparagus had a couple of weeks in April for UK grown specimens. However with the increased demand and in turn production (and luckily in turn, affordability) we can often see UK Asparagus on our shelves for most of the month of April and usually into May.
2. Wild Garlic - Not one that you'll probably find on the supermarket shelves, (but I wouldn't be surprised if it was in a year or so - the big companies will find a way), but one that is, in my mind, as equally an alert of impending Summer as Asparagus. Wild garlic is a delicate, pungent leaf that often grows on roadsides, in hedgerows and down country lanes. You'll know if you've come across it - you will pick up its strong aroma as you pass it - savoury, garlicky and for some people, perhaps not too pleasant. If you find a crop of these beautiful broad leaves, which may or may not have buds and delicate white flowers in tow, I suggest to gather it all, take it home and gently sauté with a bit of butter and serve with anything (except pudding).
3. Three-corner Garlic - Also called Wild Leek, it is about as easy to spot as Wild Garlic. The flowers on both plants are very similar, however Three-corner Garlic has an even easier leaf to spot. The tall, grassy leaves have, unsurprisingly, three corners or angles - take a look at my crude cross section drawing below to get an idea. The leaves, flowers and buds have a mild garlicky note however think more leek meets garlic. You can indeed cook this leaf but I find with the delicate flavour, it is best used as a raw garnish or in a salad - R. likes to make his salads pretty with the flowers *ehem*.
4. Jersey Royals - The oft paired Jersey Royal and Asparagus dish (would also work with Wild Garlic) is a herald of spring from fine-dining restaurants across Europe, proving an old boss of mine's rule of “what grows together goes together”. New season Jersey Royals are small nugget-like potatoes that have a deep yellow hue and creamy, buttery interior when cooked. You'd know a good Jersey Royal from your standard salad potato is all I'm saying. Usually fairly pricey in potato terms, if you are putting on a Spring dinner party, I wouldn't skimp though, they're delicious.
5. ***The Antithesis*** Spring Lamb - The words Spring Lamb is oft used on menus, in advertising and whatnot, and it's true, it conjures up sunny fields of well-brought up lambs bouncing around. Who wouldn't want to eat that? Spring lamb is the Black Sheep on this list though (hehe), Spring Lamb hearkens back to a day when the prized meats were un-aged beef, milk-fed caged veal calves, battery chickens and white, tasteless intensely-reared pork. Spring Lamb, is young, anywhere between 3-5 months old, and although yes, delicious, it lacks depth of lamb-y flavour. Wait for the autumn for lamb - or if you can find it - hogget (a sheep that is slaughtered between 1-2 years old), you'll thank me later.