Food & Drink: Tastes for all seasons

Chilli Fiestas, Totally Tomato Shows, the Glorious Twelfth - and peaches and cream. This round-up of August produce celebrates some of the year's most flavoursome food and suggests where to find it.
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The Independent Culture
August tests the personality of any cook. One minute you feel ridiculously lazy, inundated with some of the most luscious, flavoursome produce of the entire year. The next minute you can become obsessed with the romantic notion of converting everything into pickles, jams and freezer packs. Then just when you are settling into a relaxed routine, the game season starts with that daunting dish - grouse. But if it all gets too much, you can always escape by heading to the country in search of greengages, blackberries, or even chillies.

One of the luxurious aspects of living in Britain is the fact that we are able to grow an extraordinary diversity of fruit and vegetables. Chillies, peppers, summer squash and sweetcorn, for example, grow well in many of the southern counties and are now at their peak. The new supersweet varieties of sweetcorn no longer convert their sugar into starch the instant they are picked, so indolent cooks can take their time throwing the odd cob on the barbie. However, if you are picking sweetcorn, select ears with brown silky threads as this indicates ripeness. Incidentally, if visiting a pick-your-own farm look out for green and yellow patty pan squash, which should lurk near the courgettes. Pick while small and tender and for maximum sweetness, cook as soon as possible.

At this time of year, the weather can greatly affect a plant's flavour. Sun-loving herbs like thyme, basil, fennel or marjoram develop an intense taste if untroubled by rain or cloud. In the same way, chillies respond to warm weather by becoming hotter.

Any British chilli sceptics should visit West Dean Gardens, near Chichester on 14-15 August as they are holding a Chilli Fiesta based on their own large range of unusual varieties. You can even buy them. Perhaps a few ultra hot Fire Cracker chillies or some Pretty Purple peppers? Alternatively, telephone 01309 897892 for Peppers by Post's catalogue. They pick and post home-grown tomatillos and up to nine different types of chillies.

Cucumbers and tomatoes are also at their best now. Contrary to popular belief, you can buy delicious supermarket specimens of both. Often it is a question of trialing the many different varieties available and then sticking to whichever tastes best for a week or two before repeating the process. I have to admit a current weakness for Baby Santa - a sweet baby plum tomato - along with small, ridged organic cucumbers. In theory, yellow tomatoes are supposed to be sweeter than red, although this is not always the case with those in the supermarket. Golden Queen, a round yellow tomato that dates back to the late 19th century, is reputed to be one of the best, although is rarely grown. Anyone with access to a specialist greengrocer should look out for delicious green or striped tomatoes varieties like Camone or Green Zebra.

However, before you settle down to a scrumptious tomato salad, remember that August is the month for plums and blackberries. This year is predicted to be a bonanza on both counts. The pleasures of juicy dual-purpose Opal plums await you, followed by Reeves and Avalon, then succulent greengages, and, of course, Victoria plums. You should even be able to pick damsons in the next two to three weeks as the hot weather has brought their season forward. No rest for the jam-makers.

Greengages are a problematic fruit for greengrocers. They are only fully ripe when soft, but in such a state they tempt every discerning local wasp and bruise very easily. Consequently, they are often harvested when they're as hard as golf balls and with as much flavour. Aside from growing your own, you could indulge in a greengage fest by visiting Oast House Farm, Stourmouth, Canterbury (01227 722202).

At this time of year it is worth wandering around the supermarkets. Aside from basking in their cool air conditioning. you can buy fragrant peaches, nectarines, late season raspberries and blueberries. The English blueberry season has already begun so check the labels. They easily out-taste their American and French cousins. All you need is a pot of clotted cream. White peaches and nectarines can be more expensive, simply because they are in greater demand on the continent. They value their sweet, fragrant flavour above the robust, yellow-fleshed varieties.

If you happen to be wandering down Sainsbury's vegetable aisles, look out for wild Scottish chanterelles. Being wild, they will only appear if the weather has been suitably damp in Scotland - chanterelles do not appreciate hot dry weather. The appearance of such luxuries will, no doubt, prompt some cooks to focus on some serious cooking.

The grouse season begins on 12 August. It always fills me with apprehension. Unlike partridge or teal, the grouse has become an annual bone of contention between environmentalists, cooks, keen shots and aspiring socialites. Should it be eaten or protected? How high should it be served? How rare should it be eaten and with what?

Yet the issues are never resolved and few appear to change their opinion. I will not enter into the arguments here, but will offer a word of caution. Talk to your butcher or game dealer about how high you enjoy your birds. Many sold commercially are lightly hung so as not to offend delicate palates. The Glorious Twelfth also marks the start of the snipe season. Rarely sold commercially, you need to order these tiny birds from a game dealer. They live on the foreshore and some grouse moors, so are often part of a mixed shooting bag. Traditionally they are roasted rare (ungutted) and served on toast with a clear gravy, fried potatoes and a salad. Perhaps I will stick to my peaches and cream for a few more weeks.

West Dean Gardens, Chichester, West, Sussex P018 OQZ will also be hosting the Totally Tomato Show on 4-5 September (01243 818210/811301). Another good place to visit is The Henry Doubleday Research Association, Ryton Organic Gardens, Coventry CV8 3LCY. If tempted you can join and get free access to 10 gardens including West Dean's Victorian Garden plus free gardening advice (01203 303517)

Sybil Kapoor's latest book is `Simply British', Penguin pounds 7.99