Spring produce guide: What to look out for at the farmers’ market

From purple sprouting broccoli to bright-as-a-button radishes, Angela Clutton satisfies our early springtime cravings with her guide to getting the most out of Borough Market

Monday 27 February 2023 11:59 GMT
Move over asparagus: purple sprouting broccoli is the first star of spring
Move over asparagus: purple sprouting broccoli is the first star of spring (Getty/iStock)

I am so, so over root vegetables. Celeriac, parsnips, even carrots – I’m done with them and their wintry produce pals. For now, anyway. They’ve done me proud right through the winter – and in, oh, about eight months time I know I’ll be in the mood for them again – but right now there is the spring in the air and I want to cook and eat accordingly.

The hope of spring eating comes just a little before the produce itself does. As soon as the mornings get that bit lighter earlier, the afternoons longer, and I don’t have to wrap my thickest coat right around me as I bundle through the Market. So to satisfy my early springtime cravings I’ve been reminding myself of the spring produce recipes we included in Borough Market: The Knowledge. Recipes I haven’t cooked for long months, but now can’t wait to get back to.

Asparagus tends to get the loudest spring produce fanfare but it’s actually the purple sprouting broccoli that comes first, with stalks so delicate and delicious they are almost tastier than the florets. I like to lightly steam or boil the spears until just about done so as to preserve their inky colour. Then envelop them in a beautiful, thick, glossy hollandaise. Lovely for lunch with some good dunking bread. Or this recipe from The Knowledge is a bit of a fave: roasting PSB spears with a handful of walnuts, then serving them with a hot garlic and anchovy laden sauce that anyone familiar with bagna cauda will know well. I like to think the anchovies from De Calabria give extra flavour to that as they resonate with the sauce’s Italian roots. Through March and April this combo is going to be cropping up in my kitchen as a side, piled on toast for lunch, or even tossed through pasta.

The asparagus spears appear with perfect timing just as the PSB’s novelty is slightly waning. The market stalls proudly position the bundles of those first asparagus spears front and centre, knowing how much shoppers have been looking forward to them coming. The British asparagus comes from farmers across Suffolk, Kent, Worcestershire and Herefordshire who will want to get their spears to market as quickly as possible after harvesting. They know that asparagus always tastes best and sweetest when eaten as soon as possible after being cropped.

Theirs is a short, barely six-week season. The first spears are the thin delicate “sprue” which certainly don’t need peeling and will benefit most from a gentle steam to protect their flavour. As the season goes along the spears on the stall become fatter and woodier. They might need a light peeling lower down the stalk and you’ll know where to take the ends off by bending each spear and feeling where you can snap it away. I’m going to urge you not just lob those ends into the bin – they are packed with gorgeous asparagus flavour. If you’re a stock maker, add these asparagus ends to your freezer bag of veg peelings etc. Use them in a soup. Or let them infuse flavour into a sauce.

Asparagus tastes best and sweetest when eaten as soon as possible after being cropped (Getty/iStock)

In The Knowledge you’ll find a recipe for roasting the spears, then serving with a softly boiled quail’s egg, and shavings of the summer truffle that Tartufaia sell preserved in oil. Simple, elegant accompaniments befitting the simple elegance of asparagus. And just exactly what I want to eat on a Saturday late morning, outside for perhaps one of the first times of the year, relishing in the delight that seasonal shopping and cooking can bring.

Perhaps less glamorously – but certainly equally deliciously – are spring’s first new potatoes. Tiny, almost walnut-sized; their skin so thin you have to be careful when washing them in case it rubs right off. Ask around at the market for where the new potatoes have come from. The answer “Jersey” might be the one you want, or expect. And you’ll certainly often get it. But you’ll also discover new potatoes from Cornwall, Ayrshire or another of the great coastal regions whose climates produce very special flavour in these potatoes.

‘The Knowledge’ is a step-by-step guide to using the produce from the market (Hodder & Stoughton)

Again, I’ll often steam them to best protect their flavour. Then toss them in butter that has been melted with torn wild garlic leaves. Wild garlic that I will not have spent my spring foraging for. I am not one of those people you see on Instagram who seems able to leave her house and just stumble upon a wild garlic wood. For my stash of seasonal wild garlic I am grateful to the Market traders.

As spring goes along you’ll see the grocer’s stalls also begin to embrace bright-as-a-button radishes with long plumes of leaves, the first gleaming cherries (hello cherry meringue roulade from The Knowledge…), and so much more. But please don’t think for a moment that it is just at the fruit and veg stalls that the new season makes itself felt. Look out for the young, soft goat and sheep cheeses made with the herds’ first milk – they’ll have such delicate yet vibrant flavour. The fishmongers will have more plaice and crab and be only too happy to tell you what else is being landed right now.

Beyond all of these specifics of produce to look out for when shopping, and to relish in cooking and eating, spring brings a very distinct energy to the Market. There is a palpable vibe.

It comes from the traders who no longer have to wrap themselves up against the elements. They’re setting up their stalls in the light, and even closing them down in the light, too. How fabulous is that.

And the vibe comes from all of us. Whether we’re concentrating-shoppers or laid-back wanderers, the first warming rays make staying amongst the stalls all the more enticing. Market hustle and bustle begins to be swapped for a more relaxed yet tangible excitement at the prospect of all the food joys spring can bring.

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