Flowery frocks have hit Harvey Nicks, lambs are frolicking in the fields, and the first Jersey Royal potatoes are slipping into the shops. Signs of spring are everywhere, and April is the start of the British season for culinary indulgence. It's a season that lasts a deliciously long nine months.
Before you rush out and celebrate by buying fresh morels, first consider your kitchen. Isn't it time to get down to some spring-cleaning? Clear out all the dried fruit and spices that have passed their sell-by date. After hibernating all winter, this is the month in which many of us wake up to baking, and it's amazing the difference a fresh pot of ground cinnamon or mace can make to the flavour of home-made hot cross buns or saffron bread.
Tomorrow is Mothering Sunday - the fourth Sunday in Lent - which, according to Sara Paston-Williams, food historian and menu consultant at the National Trust, is the time to eat simnel cake. "The British have always celebrated special events by making spiced fruit breads and cakes," she says.
"On the fourth Sunday in Lent, the entire family was supposed to return to their mother church. This was the one day in the year when children in domestic service were allowed out to visit their families. In Victorian times, many were allowed to bake a simnel cake to take as a mid-Lent celebration.
"Goodness only knows why we all go on about panettone when we have so many of our own wonderful recipes," she adds ruefully.
If anyone feels the urge to reinstate traditional Mothering Sunday dishes such as spiced fig pudding, badger the second-hand book dealers for Paston-Williams's wonderful The National Trust Book of Christmas and Festive Day Recipes (Penguin, 1983, currently out of print).
Apart from the pleasures of marzipan-topped cakes and sticky hot cross buns, April is associated with lambs and fluffy Easter bunnies, both of which benefit from grazing on lush spring grass. A wild rabbit may weigh only 450g, but tastes great gently cooked with bacon and tarragon in a crusty pie. Another Easter delicacy is, or rather was, capon. Originally these were cockerels which were castrated to encourage chubbiness. Fortunately for the hapless birds, caponising is now illegal, so butchers such as Lidgate in Holland Park, west London (020-7727 8243), sell larger breeds of free-range or organic hens which can weigh up to three kilos. Mr Lidgate also recommends cooking beef that has dined off the sweet new grass: a sound choice for those who want something red-blooded to mark St George's Day on 23 April.
If you are lucky, you might stumble across pale honey-coloured St George's mushrooms (Tricholoma gambosum). These grow in old pasture, on downland and along the edges of woods, and appear at the end of April - hence their name. Large specimens have a mealy, yeast-like smell. You can buy them in specialist greengrocers; amateur mushroom-gatherers should be sure they know what they are picking before they eat anything.
Back to beef: take advantage of the fact that Easter is the only time of year you can reliably buy fresh horseradish from supermarkets such as Sainsbury's. Although it is harvested in Britain throughout the winter, it is sold fresh only around Passover. Ashkenazi Jews eat it as a bitter herb at the Seder meal. Provided horseradish is wrapped in clingfilm to prevent it shrivelling, it can be kept in the fridge for weeks.
Fruit is one of the few things that does not shine in April. Last year's English apples and pears are exhausted, and the Spanish citrus season is coming to an end. Don't overlook excellent home-grown rhubarb, though, as well as imported lemons, limes and grapefruit. For a good fruity pudding, look to the tropics for juicy sweet papayas, pineapples, bananas and physalis.
As an alternative to fruit, there's always cheese. As the days grow warmer, softer creamy cheeses seem more appropriate. In the past, goat- and ewe's-milk cheeses were seasonal and a few still are - production is starting now. Most, however, are made all year round. Waitrose has developed a scheme to thwart lazy Londoners who assume they can buy everything without leaving the capital. They have sought out small artisan cheesemakers and persuaded them to supply a handful of local stores. The light, lemony, ash-coated Cerney goat's cheese, made by Marion Conisbee-Smith near Cirencester, Gloucestershire, can be bought only in the Cirencester, Stroud and Witney branches. Similarly, the flowery sheep's milk Sussex Slipcoate and the intensely flavoured St George's goat Camembert are available only in certain Sussex stores.
Salads and herbs are more easily available in the city, even if supplies of some are patchy. Sorrel isn't always easy to come by, but home-grown mint, chives and spinach are all improving by the day, as are young lettuces, peppery radishes and rocket. The first of the Mediterranean crop of white asparagus, tender young broad beans, artichokes, fennel and tomatoes are all appearing. The one vegetable to treat with caution is leeks, as it often has a woody stem at this time of year.
Eggs are always on the agenda at Easter. Some of the larger Waitrose shops have duck eggs. These have surprisingly tough shells when they're hard-boiled - useful if you're thinking of painting them for Easter. Selfridges in London (020-7629 1234) even stocks ostrich eggs for a mere £18.50 each. Apparently, one ostrich egg is equivalent to 26 hen's eggs and is less rich than a duck egg. I haven't tried one. I'd prefer an egg that size to be made of chocolate.Reuse content