Amber nectar: Skye Gyngell adds a drop of maple syrup to dishes from curry to ice-cream

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The warmer days and freezing nights of February and March are the key harvesting months for maple syrup, which means it's never fresher than right now.

The warmer days and freezing nights of February and March are the key harvesting months for maple syrup, which means it's never fresher than right now.

Originally used by Native Americans as both a foodstuff and a medicine, 80 per cent of the world's maple syrup now comes from Canada, where sap is drained from maple trees then boiled to make the viscous liquid.

A dash or 10 of the beautifully rich syrup is the perfect way to impart an earthy sweetness to more dishes than you might imagine, which is why I always have a large supply in my kitchens at work and home. It's perfect on pancakes, of course, but also good in salad dressings or folded into yoghurt and served with fruit for breakfast. I even use it in ice-creams and curries.

What's more, it contains fewer calories and more minerals than honey – it's full of zinc and manganese, which are great anti-oxidants – so there are even health reasons to take a glug or two of this rich nectar.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627

Chickpea curry

Serves 4

600g/21oz dried chickpeas
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tsp mustard seeds
1tsp fennel seeds
1tsp cumin seeds
1tsp coriander seeds
5 cardamom pods
1tbsp vegetable oil
2 red onions, peeled and sliced
1 small bunch of coriander, roots included
1 red chilli
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
4 carrots, peeled and diced
3tbsp maple syrup
The juice of two limes
3tbsp soya sauce
Two jars of good-quality tomatoes
50g/2oz unsalted butter

Soak the chickpeas overnight. Drain and place in a large pot of cold water. Add a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda. Cook over a medium heat for around 45 minutes or until tender. Drain and set aside.

To make the base of the curry, warm up the spices in a small pan, being careful not to burn them, as this will result in a bitter taste. Grind using a pestle and mortar.

Add the vegetable oil to a pot large enough to hold all the ingredients comfortably and place over a medium heat. When the oil is warm, add the onions and cook for five minutes to soften them. Chop the coriander and the chilli very finely and add to the pot along with the garlic and the spices.

Add the diced carrots and cook for 10 minutes. Then add the maple syrup, lime juice and soya sauce, stirring well to combine the flavours, and cook for another few minutes. Add the tomatoes and turn up the heat slightly. Cook for 15 minutes to thicken the sauce.

At this point it should taste hot, sweet and slightly sharp. Keep the pan over the heat until the carrots are cooked through but still firm. At this point, add the chickpeas and the butter.

Baked maple-syrup custard with rhubarb

Rhubarb makes a lovely pudding with this baked custard or even simply folded through soft vanilla ice-cream.

Serves 6

For the custard

1 litre/35fl oz double cream
1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthways
The peel of one lemon
The yolks of 12 organic free-range eggs
4 whole organic free-range eggs
150g/5oz caster sugar
200ml/7fl oz maple syrup
150ml/5fl oz marsala wine

For the rhubarb

5 sticks of rhubarb
180g/6oz sugar
1 cup of water or verjus
1 vanilla pod
The peel of one lemon

To make the custard, start by placing the cream, vanilla pod and lemon peel into a saucepan, place on the hob and bring to just below a simmer. Remove from the heat and set aside for around 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Beat the whole eggs and yolks together until well combined. Add the sugar and continue to beat. Add the maple syrup and marsala and stir well. Strain the infused cream through a colander into the egg mixture. Stir and pour into a baking dish. Gently lay the baking dish in a bain marie – in this case, a roasting tray filled with warm water. You need to make sure that the water comes no further than halfway up the side of the pan. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for around 30 minutes. The custard should be golden-brown on top but still wobbly in the centre. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Place the sticks of rhubarb on a baking tray and sprinkle with the sugar. Drizzle with the water or verjus and tuck the vanilla pod and lemon peel among the sticks. Roast on the middle of the oven at 180C/350F/Gas4 for 20 minutes or until soft. Remove and allow to cool before serving with the custard. '

Sweet potato with spiced yoghurt

Serves 4

For the potatoes

2 sweet potatoes, peeled
The juice of half a lime
2tbsp of maple syrup
1tbsp soya sauce
1 dried chilli

For the spiced yoghurt

200ml/7fl oz good-quality Greek yoghurt
The juice of one lime
2tsp Tabasco
3tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
A pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Slice the potatoes into generous chunks. Place in a mixing bowl and spoon over the maple syrup, soya sauce and lime juice. Crumble over the chilli and combine well. Place in a roasting dish and roast, uncovered, on the middle shelf for 20 minutes. Remove and baste with the juices. Return to the oven for a further 20 minutes or until soft.

While the potatoes are cooking, place the yoghurt in a bowl and add the lime juice, Tabasco, olive oil and a good pinch of salt. Stir well to combine.

Remove the potatoes and place in a warm serving bowl. Spoon the yoghurt over them and serve immediately (pictured here with roasted chicken – but they work with almost anything, or on their own).

Maple syrup and pecan ice-cream

Serves 8

500ml/17fl oz whole milk
1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthways
10 egg yolks
100g/31/2oz caster sugar
11/2tbsp maple syrup
300ml/10fl oz double cream
20 pecan nuts

Place the milk and vanilla pod in a saucepan and bring to just below the boil. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for at least 15 minutes. Remove the vanilla pod and set aside.

Place the egg yolks and caster sugar in a bowl and whisk together thoroughly.

Return the milk to the heat and again bring it to just below the boil. Remove and add the maple syrup. Pour over the egg and sugar mixture, then return to the saucepan and place over a very low heat. Stir in a figure of eight motion until the liquid coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Once cool, stir the cream through the mixture, then churn in the ice-cream maker. When the ice-cream begins to set, fold in the nuts and continue to churn for another 10 minutes. Transfer the ice-cream to a tub and place in the freezer for at least two hours before serving. You can serve it, as I do, with a few more chopped pecans and a drizzle of maple syrup.

The Forager by Wendy Fogarty

Petersham's food sourcer on where to find the best maple syrup...

The highest-quality syrup – light in viscosity and colour — is graded A or 1 and is the syrup of choice for pancakes. The slightly thicker and darker syrup is graded B or 2 and is ideal for glazing.

Shady Maple Farm, Quebec: The most commonly found maple syrup in the UK, this is sourced from the Shady farm as well as 1,500 producers in Canada. It is widely available from health-food stores and delicatessens

Selfridges: The department store's food halls sells Epicure Pure Canadian Maple Syrup Grade A and Highland Sugarworks Pure Maple Syrup ( www.selfridges.co.uk)

Whole Foods Market: sells syrups from Shady Maple Farm, TerraSana Organic Syrup, Meridian Organic and its own label, Fresh N Wild Everyday Maple Syrup ( www.wholefoodsmarket.com)

For further information: get a hold of The Maple Syrup Book by Janet Eagleson and Rosemary Hasner (£15.95, Boston Mills Press), which is filled with culturally distinct recipes, folklore and the history and traditions of its manufacturing

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