The phrase ‘seasonal eating’ has now been so over used that it’s become slightly cringe worthy, like the idea of eating only locally sourced produce and all the sickly lingo that goes with it – ‘locavore’ being the best example. The principles behind these concepts are well meaning, yet it appears we have lost all sense of perspective. For a while, it seemed like anyone who ate a pepper in winter was going to get locked up for doing it and it’s a shame we got to that stage because it masks the bigger picture, which is about the pure pleasure of experiencing something at its best.
I’m thinking about this because I was invited to visit the Riverford organic farm in Devon last weekend. The weather was glorious and our hangovers were massive, having been fed and watered very well at the award winning Riverford Field Kitchen the evening before. Our merriment continued well into the night after leaving the restaurant and there were some hairy moments bouncing around in the back of that Land Rover the next day I can tell you. Guy Watson, the owner and founder of the Riverford business, saw this as the best way for us to see as much of the farm as possible. “You look like you’re struggling a bit Helen” he remarked. He was right.
Guy Watson is the sort of bloke who is just in exactly the right place, doing exactly the right thing. This man is part of the farm. From his expertise, to the well used knife he often produces to deftly pluck a cabbage or bisect a leek, to his smile-lined, sun-weathered face. He understands the ecosystem he’s dealing with and works with it -apparently the key to successful organic farming.
We start the tour with a bit of poly tunnel action. Lettuces and other leaves grow in the muggy plastic structures, apparently so fast that ‘you can almost hear them’ doing it. There is the usual compact, crinkled gem and some more interesting stuff like dandelion leaves – bitter and earthy. Apparently not many customers are keen but Guy really enjoys them and so do I.
We bounce from field to field plucking leeks, spring greens and rhubarb. We are all fascinated by the purple sprouting broccoli, with one of us remarking on how ignorant we sometimes are about the way vegetables grow. A final burst of energy saw everyone huffing towards the garlic wood – Riverford customers get 2-3 bunches per season in their vegetable box (they’ve done a survey and apparently this is the average preference). My big bunch has gone into a soup and frittata. Neither novel ideas, both delicious.
I used to get a vegetable box, but I cancelled it about a year ago because, quite frankly, I got bored. It wasn’t a Riverford box though, and I’m not just puffing hot air when I say that I find their boxes more interesting. A bunch of dandelion leaves and wild garlic would both be most welcome. Of course in the dead of winter, when it’s all carrots, carrots and woody parsnips, it’s a real struggle for anyone to stay enthused. Through the spring and summer though, I rather miss the surprise of cracking open the box; things move fast and favourites are superseded quickly.
This is the challenge of eating seasonally. I am suspicious of most people who say they don’t eat any aubergines or spring onions in winter (although I bet Guy doesn’t). For me, the important thing is to celebrate stuff that grows in this country and grows well, at its best. A perfectly sweet and scarlet British strawberry is a classic example. It’s about supporting our British fruit and veg when it’s really doing its thing.
Purple sprouting broccoli is dancing its last fandango in April. Here’s a recipe.
Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Reblochon Frittata
Reblochon cheese, sliced
1 large handful purple sprouting broccoli stems
1 handful wild garlic leaves, shredded or a couple of crushed regular cloves
6 eggs, beaten
1 medium onion, sliced
1 small leek, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley (I used curly)
Salt and pepper
Plunge the broccoli stems into boiling salted water for a few minutes, then drain and rinse under cold water. Soften the onions and leek in a little olive oil in a skillet or frying pan on a gentle heat (and also the garlic cloves, if using) for about 5 minutes until good and soft. Arrange half the broccoli stems on top. Season the beaten eggs with salt and pepper and mix in the parsley and wild garlic if using and pour this evenly over the broccoli/onion mix. Add the rest of the broccoli and push down into the egg before laying the cheese slices on top.
Cook over a low-moderate heat until you can see the frittata cooking at the edges. You can then pop it under a medium hot grill to finish. Watch it though, because the top cooks fast. Lovely warm but often even better cold for lunch the next day.