Food and Drink: Picking the moment
The key to good eating is seasonality. Sybil Kapoor seeks out the best of July's food
Saturday 03 July 1999
But take a good hard look, because the latest food trend to sweep the country - seasonality - may soon change them for good.
For the last 10 years the supermarkets have striven to give us all we could desire. No cook could want for raspberries in January or Brussel sprouts in July. The more produce we demanded, the more exotic variety we were offered, until it has become impossible to distinguish one season from another. The pleasures of cooking the first crop of peas in June has gone, along with the age-old knowledge of what comes when.
Instead, cooks have turned to the weather for culinary guidance. Hot day - cold food or barbecue. Where is the self-expression in that?
But now, a breath of fresh country air is blowing into our towns with the newly-formed farmer's markets and organic box schemes. Stall-holders are being mobbed by urban shoppers keen to lay their hands on indigenous seasonal produce. Even in the country, pick-your-own farms are rapidly changing. Many are marketed as a rural experience as well as a source of good fresh food. Their shops sell everything from topped-and-tailed gooseberries (with some freshly picked elderflowers) to clotted cream.
In other words, fashion-conscious cooks are going to have to relearn the natural seasons for food and to pick out the best ingredients from every source. Squeamishness fostered by perfect shrink-wrapped produce will be discarded in favour of the tactile pleasures of selection. Sniff the heady scent of ripe peaches and feel the rough skin of a melon, as you test its ripeness.
Forget those serious TV chefs with their international cooking styles. Honest home-cooked food is on its way in. Your meals will evolve naturally as the ingredients change from month to month.
One look at July's produce will prove the point. This is the month of rampant herbs, legumes, tender roots and soft fruit. Long daylight hours and a temperate climate produces peas, mangetouts and sugar snap peas that are so sweet and juicy they barely need to look at a pan of boiling water. Then there are the beans - runner, broad and French. Each has many different cultivars, such as the delicately flavoured white-flowered runner beans, or Red Epicure, a delicious red-beaned variety of broad beans (available from some organic box schemes). French beans come in white, yellow, striped pods or purple - which, like most purple vegetables, turn a funky dark green when cooked.
July also marks the arrival of slightly cheaper home-grown carrots, beetroot and early potatoes. So if you wish to woo non-beetroot lovers, now is the time, as they should be sweet as sugar cubes.
And before your imagination runs wild, remember that it is also peak herb and salad season. Mint, lemon balm, borage, sorrel, rocket, nasturtiums, coriander, basil, spring onions, radishes... I could go on and on. It is one thing to cook from a small supermarket packet and quite another to snip some ultra-intense leaves from home-grown herbs. Even if you just nurture a small supermarket pot on a sunny windowsill, you will be amazed at the difference in taste. I have even known some cooks resort to growing radishes in their window boxes.
Meat will have to be thrown out the window this month in favour of sweet- tasting shellfish, reasonably-priced sea trout and flat fish. British lobsters become easier to catch when the water is warmer, and brill, sole and turbot are back in season. Sadly, many shops ignore the traditional seasons that allow fish only to be sold at its best. Look out for succulent farmed cockles, and do buy marsh samphire if you see it in the fishmonger. Its juicy saline stems are delicious lightly steamed as a vegetable or in salads.
Soft fruit is also at its peak this month: raspberries, gooseberries, loganberries, tayberries, boysenberries, strawberries, red, black, pink and white currants and the new weird sunberries which are due in some organic box schemes this month: slightly larger than a raspberry, they are deep red and said to taste of blackcurrants.
The best and freshest soft fruit is going to be found on pick-your-own farms. They offer the greatest choice plus the luxury of taste-testing everything. Cooking gooseberries, for example, can be bought when they are golden and ripe rather than green and hard. Strawberries can be picked according to variety and when they are bursting with sugary juices. You can choose between huge Hapils, sweet-tasting Emilys, pale red Honeoyes or the ultra-sweet but very perishable Pegasus.
Even better, a few farms still sell morello cherries, which usually ripen in July and are almost impossible to buy fresh in shops. The Harvest Times newsletter will tell you about your nearest PYO farm.
However, it is impossible to neglect the imported melons and apricots. Aside from being delicious, they will soothe anybody pining for a continental holiday. Urban cooks should seek out the last unbelievably cheap boxes of Pakistani or Indian mangoes from local Asian and Middle-Eastern shops. They're far more fragrant and juicy than any South American specimens. Sharp-eyed supermarket shoppers should also look out for a new deep-red early rhubarb variety - Millennium rhubarb - which is said to have a higher sugar content than usual.
Last, but by no means least, it's time to indulge in soft and semi-soft goat and sheep's milk cheeses. Unlike cows, goats and sheep still only produce their progeny in the spring and summer months when the grass is most lush, so their milk remains seasonal, despite the fact that some producers freeze it to make cheese through the winter months. Such foods literally taste of summer.
For details of local PYO farms send two first-class stamps with your name and address to: `Harvest Times', PO Box 575, Southampton SO15 7ZB. From 5 July their website will be www.farmshopping.com
For a complete list of farmers' markets send a stamped-addressed A5 envelope to: Farmers' Markets, Local Food Lines, The Soil Association, Bristol House, 40-56 Victoria Street, Bristol BS1 6BY.
Sybil Kapoor's latest book, `Simply British', is published by Penguin on 29 July at pounds 7.99
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