Philip Hensher: Let's celebrate oysters and asparagus

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The Independent Online

A bit more than 20 years ago, I was in the market in Cambridge at the middle of June. We'd been gorging ourselves on local asparagus for the last few weeks and I headed to the vegetable stall. There was none to be seen, and I asked the stallholder if she would be getting some tomorrow.

She looked at me with complete astonishment. "The season's over now," she said, with the clear suggestion of "What on earth were you thinking?"

I bet you could buy asparagus in the Cambridge market all year round, these days. Supermarkets sell it, flown in from Africa or South America, in the depths of winter, and I suppose it's better than nothing. Amazingly, those Kenyan or Chilean spears are still being sold in supermarkets in the middle of the English asparagus season, which traditionally starts on St George's Day, 23 April, and continues for eight or 10 weeks.

The economic viability of flying fruit and vegetables around the world has eroded the notion of seasons. Our ancestors used to look forward with great excitement to the first strawberry, the first tomato, and the brief asparagus season. With the disappearance of seasons has come the disappearance of flavour; the soft fruit you can buy in December invariably has no taste, and people seem to go on happily buying tasteless soft fruit from remote locations even when the good stuff starts to arrive.

Some things still have a definite season; game, certainly (I love the short woodcock season), and some delicious oddities of the English kitchen – gull's eggs, or samphire. Wild mushrooms come and go with the months – travellers in Germany are often puzzled in late summer by the many boards outside restaurants excitedly announcing the arrival of "Pfifferlingen", or chanterelles. These are things which are not going to interest the narrow focus of most supermarkets. Even if they aren't protected by law, no one is going to struggle to find ways to remove their flavour and sell them from January to December.

Best of all seasonal products are native oysters. The old rule of only eating them in months with an "r" in them still operates. Greatly superior to the year-round rock oysters, they arrive in September and by mid-May are gone, to spend a quiet summer spawning, filtering, pearl-constructing, or whatever it is off-duty oysters do to pass their spare time.

The slow-food movement has found ways to celebrate the seasons of individual delicacies – the Vale of Evesham is hosting the third British Asparagus Festival at the moment, the biggest of several such festivals.

I know all the arguments against the reliance on seasonality – the point that you would pay for seasonal abundance in May and June with a dire sequence of root vegetables in January.

All the same, the cycle of the seasons does bring a sense of excitement, of advent, glut and disappearance to our food. If you followed an increasing numbers of recommendations from food professionals and try to live seasonally, your food would taste better, and you would live somewhat more adventurously.

I have a suggestion. The first English asparagus and the last native oysters more or less coincide around now, at the end of April. May sees English cherries and broad beans appearing. Might it not be a nice idea to make the last weekend of April a culinarily memorable one? Perhaps food producers could designate it Seasonal Food Weekend, and alert us to the real excellence of food when it comes and goes, when a glut bursts upon us. I hope we never get to the point where the taste of a strawberry doesn't remind us of summer, or game birds of autumn.

Conspicuous consumption – African style

There must have been a very good reason why the first ladies of the countries of Africa went to Beverly Hills to hold a seminar. It was on health, Aids, that sort of stuff.

The attention of Los Angeles, however, focused on Ana Paula dos Santos of Angola "channelling Mrs [Obama] and Jackie O in a fabulous double breasted pink coat" and one of the King of Swaziland's wives in "bold brooch, rhinestone encrusted sunglasses, strappy silver sandals".

The life expectancy in Angola is 40 for men, 44 for women. GDP per head in Swaziland is £1,188. It is ruled by personal decree of the monarch.

Coverage of this bizarre event have tended to focus on the extravagant displays of some of the women attending, and suggestions that the location may have been selected for its unrivalled shopping opportunities.

It is tempting to look at the extraordinarily high-maintenance hairdo of Chantal Biya, the wife of Cameroon's President, and just giggle.

I think we should remember that her husband, Paul Biya, recently forced through a law which removes any limit on his presidential term, and provides immunity from prosecution after he leaves office. I wonder why.

This ostentation is at the expense of democracy, openness and prosperity.

An auction of emptiness

Last Wednesday, at the London Book Fair, I am told an auction took place for the autobiography of Susan Boyle.

Miss Boyle, in case you were not paying attention, is the Scottish lady singer who performed on ITV's Britain's Got Talent. She surprised the world with a gap between her personal glamour and the professional quality of her performance.

Having spent too many hours gazing at some fairly plain but accomplished opera singers, I wasn't surprised to discover that perfect skin and hair aren't necessary in this field.

What does surprise me is that three minutes on ITV and tens of millions of hits on YouTube seems enough to transform a life of blameless quiet into a fascinating autobiographical narrative. I love Susan Boyle's story as much as anyone, and admire what it seems to demonstrate. But to provide enough material for an interesting book must inevitably destroy the established narrative, that she has been doing nothing but dream for nearly fifty years. I foresee whole chapters about her now famous cat Pebble's ancestry.

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