[As published in September/October BayBuzz magazine.]
Distrust of the seasons is mounting … understandably. Those closest to the land have been bowled nothing but curve balls and bouncers and hospital passes for more than a year. Well and truly slammed and dunked, their impressive resilience is tested as seldom before. We are in their debt. No farmers, no food.
So here we go, bravely into a new round of our climatic wheel of fortune game and associated uncertainty. Spring kicks us off teasingly, foreshadowing warmer times one day and plunging us back into the teeth of a wintery southerly the next.
Whether you believe spring begins on the 1st or the 21st of September you are largely wrong but slightly right. There is no firm date, no starter’s pistol, no universal “Ready-steady-grow!”.
There’s certainly enough stretch in the day and occasional warmth of the sun to engender optimism from mid-August onwards. Spring appears in stages, for the leaves of a walnut tree have never seen an early cherry in blossom. (That’s a personal observation, rather than an old Welsh proverb or metaphor to help you through life.)
Some daffodils flower in winter. They are not ‘confused’. It’s not a ‘sign of spring’. Surprise at the confused flowering is confusion itself; a sign that we are unaware of winter blooming daffodils. Gaps in our knowledge of the natural world grow as we distance ourselves ever further from the subject. The nomenclature of foods often steers our seasonal misconceptions. ‘Spring lambs’ are commonly born in winter so as to be rumen-ready in time to eat the spring and early-summer grass growth and, in turn, be eaten themselves in spring.
Human instincts for control and understanding of all things shouldn’t lead us to prescribe four seasons of three months each with strict start and end dates. Given the first blossoms appear in August and summer doesn’t start until late December or January we have a four-to-five month spring season. The length varying from year to year.
So what are we eating?
What’s ready now was planted months ago. If plantings are interrupted then September and October are usually when fresh produce is scarce. Late frost, rain during flowering, and hail can destroy crops. Hydroponics, hot houses, and imports fill gaps, but at a price. A price not only to the consumer, but also in lost sales to the local growers. Delight in the joy of the first bite of the season of some Hawke’s Bay goodness.
Here is a short list of my favourite spring produce and simple tips. So forget pineapples, bananas, mangoes et al. Savour the season of our own fruit bowl. Spend with our local growers. They need our support.
Apricots: Tree-ripened, savour them fresh.
Strawberries: have a long season so I like to wait until late spring for the juicy ripe ones. Use the end of a teaspoon to dig out the stalk.
Asparagus: Love em! Take a good look at the spears. Ideally the heads will be tight and not seedy, not too thin, not too thick. The most tender asparagus grows in a warm period shooting up quickly, but let’s appreciate recent weather conditions. They’ll be bent and possibly sand blasted by strong wind (a good wash is needed). A dry year will yield thinner spears. Late season spears may show signs of going to seed. They’re all delicious but some are more delicious than others.
Globe Artichokes: The flower buds of a thistle. Simply boiled, petals plucked and dipped into a garlic mayonnaise or butter. Your fingers are going to get messy but it’s worth it.
Peas: The first of the legumes of the year, sweet and delicious often, unjustly given the part of non-speaking extra of the dinner scene.
Beans: Yes! Fry fresh green beans and garlic in olive oil. Add fresh or tinned tomatoes. Season. Add herbs. Eat with crusty bread or use as a side dish.
Tomatoes: Not yet. The best come with the summer sun.
New potatoes (or new season potatoes): They’ll be sent from field to consumer without being stored. No need to peel them. Into cold water with salt and bring to the boil. Add butter.
Carrots…baby please! Half cover with water and simmer until still crunchy but not raw then bombard with butter, salt and pepper.
Kohlrabi: Who? What? Little known to those outside upper mainland Europe, this is brassica royalty aka German turnip. Delicious in a crunchy, apple-like way. Grate it raw into salads.
Broad beans: An old favourite that’s become popular again. Sage and butter after boiling.
Ian Thomas is a caterer and formerly free range egg farmer, cooking demonstrator, and manager of a commercial food production business. He specialises in cooking paella. paellaagogo.com