March and April are a joy across mainland Europe. After the winter months of living off root vegetables and top crops imported from the Southern Hemisphere, here we go again with our own. Blue Collar Gastronauts wear a particularly broad smile around this time of year, specially when they skip the island and get across to the mainland for the pick of the crops.
In Italy you have only to walk the markets and seek out the tickets which label the produce ‘Crudo‘. In France seek out ‘Primeurs‘, ‘Tourangelle‘ and anything else indicating what you’re looking at is new season and grown locally. Spain too celebrates almost fortnightly the coming into season of some vegetable, from baby artichokes to the new garlic or wild asparagus (trigueros). Never be afraid to ask where each item is grown – and if it’s been a ‘plane ride away, walk on.
Now is the time for ‘local’ in the genuine sense of the word. In Flanders, their speciality is the hop-shoot – exactly what it says, the shoots from the newly planted hop bines. Fine restaurants served just a tablespoonful at a price that waters the eyes as much as delighting the palate. I’ve bought them frozen from chefs and they stood up well – not as good as fresh, but with such a short season, worth the €20 for probably around 250g – that was a few years ago so I can’t be certain of the price per kilo.
What I’m saying is that mainland Europe is alive with Springtime foods. This island is not.
Italy’s market tickets which state ’Crudo’ means the broad beans, peas or artichokes are so young and tender, they are best eaten raw. Just as in summer it’s normal to see an immaculately dressed middle aged man walking across the piazza with an ice cream in a cone, in Spring the same person can be found walking along with a friend or two opening and eating broad beans or peas ‘crudo’ in the street.
At home these delicacies need no more than a simple dressing of the freshest lemon juice and E/V olive oil finished with a sprinkle of sea salt – fleur de sel when you can find it. Bread is almost too heavy, so go for the best grissini (bread sticks) you can find, using the stick to help push the produce onto your fork. Master this and you’re on your way to bella figura – the elegant Italian way with everything.
White asparagus has now been with us for nearly a month in Europe. Pure white, or violet tipped, these spears work their way across Europe from the market gardens of the Loire (‘Tourangelle), through Belgium, German, Italy and Switzerland. As they can coincide with the last of the Sicilian blood oranges, serve them with a red/orange Sauce Maltaise – a kind of Hollandaise let down with the juices of freshly squeezed blood oranges – classic, old fashioned and wonderful for that. We like our asparagus brushed with a 50:50 mix of lemon juice and E/V olive oil and set under a hot grill for a few minutes a side.
Most asparagus benefits from being peeled, but that’s just my personal view. Beware of forced varieties – English green has been around since March – their season is traditionally end-April to June 21st.
Another favourite preparation is the Belgian kitchen’s ’Liègeoise-style’ – meaning dousing the cooked asparagus in sieved warm sweetcream (Doux) butter, then sprinkling liberally with soft cooked and chopped boiled eggs – more elegant still as a mimosa (the much finer chopped egg white and yolks which resemble the mimosa which is in bloom across the South of France around now). Warm butter and running yolks of best eggs makes for a Heavenly construct. Blue Collar Gastronauts stand to attention at this point.
One tip (no pun intended) with asparagus is to hold the cut end and snap away the larger upper end – the spear will break at just the point where it becomes woody. Clever that. If you’ve a lot of spears, then use the trimmings for a stock – being careful not to over-cook (40-50 minutes should do it – drain immediately). This is then your base for soup, risotto or a sauce. Both fish and poultry are classmates with asparagus.
Steamed is good too; and poached, but here beware of going a second too long or you will loose the texture and end up with a perfect replica of canned white asparagus. All fresh asparagus, white, violet or English green, benefits from being served al-dente.
In Northern Italy, specially the Veneto, they go one further with their artichokes – they search out the ‘castraure’ – there is just one per plant and the term means, literally, ‘taken out from’. It doesn’t take a linguistic genius to see the root of the word either – trebles all round as they say.
Without removing this single tiny head, the plant won’t flourish, but by their exclusivity, their price is accordingly high. For me they are the baby artichoke of the restaurant, not the stuff of home cooking. An anti-pasti plate of 5/6 castraure will cost any up to and beyond 20-25 Euros a plate, so you know you are dining on something very fine and special here.
In Spain, they are sought after as a tapa, finely sliced and quickly flash fried ‘alla plancha’ – or they make up the Valenciana’s Springtime arroz – the Paella Verde – a splendid rice flavoured with all the new green vegetables you can find – even young spinach is fried off and formed into rounds the size of a plum and set to cook around the edge of the paella. The white rice becomes oddly coloured to a dark, murky green, but the flavour sings out – it would be one of my favourite arroces.
Tapas bars make much too of rations of broad beans with new garlic, peas with panchetta (pronounced in Spain as if the middle ‘ch’ was a ‘th’) and more.
The best of minestrone’s come around now too – made only with a fine dice of fresh vegetables and water – no chicken or meat stock added. A spoon of Pesto alla Genovese just gilds our lily to make certain everyone knows Springtime is here. Across the frontier from Liguria and into Provence, they have a very similar ‘golden moment’ called pistou.
So where are all these delights in this country? They were in Boulogne Market last week, so why can’t they make the short trip across the 21 miles of Channel to shops and markets here?
Instead there are shelled peas and haricot beans flown in year round from Kenya. When peas and broad beans arrive most are already floury because they’ve stayed in the distribution system too long, or the producer has waited unduly so as to get heavier weight for his crop. The result every way is a floury pea or bean.
One British retailer who is proud to have become one of this country’s largest pea growers, has developed a pea that when freshly podded tastes almost identical to a frozen pea – I’d swear they’ve been bathed in sugar syrup before sale. Worse is they are swanky about their achievement. Sugar sweet is not the flavour of peas – and never, ever accept recipes which tell you frozen peas and beans are ‘just as good – indeed ‘fresher’ – than the genuine article. No, no and no again – an un-truth if ever there was.
Best buy your fresh peans and beans from someone you trust – and don’t be shy to ask to taste before you buy. Walk past pre-podded plastic bags – these vegetables are at their peak when podded and eaten either raw – ‘crudo’ – or simply prepared, as in a classic Venetian ‘Risi e Bisi’. You’ll find the technique in a piece I wrote around this time in 2011.
‘Risi e Bisi’ is somewhere between a risotto and a soup – so much so it is often served in a soup plate with a spoon, rather than on a dinner plate with fork as for a risotto. The more peas, the better the dish. The technique is essentially a lazy risotto – that is, you don’t need to work the rice as hard.
We are told there is no stomach for white asparagus over here, so we must wait until the green varieties appear next month – one food writer in the UK even wrote that white asparagus was no more than bleached green – not true I’m afraid, not true. Seems crazy to me – both have their place as one is as different to the other as an apple from a pear. When the genuine, unforced green ‘grass does arrive next month, seek out farms who sell direct – they will grade their spears, so you’ll be able to find the immature ‘sprue’ which are really special which quickly shown the sauté pan and stirred into beaten eggs for a revueltos. They also match spaghetti, so break each stem into a bite sized piece and cook in the pasta water for the last 2 minutes – drain and serve with either E/V olive oil or good butter. Fresh ground black pepper is not an option here.
Buying off the farm means you’ll pay a more realistic price, they’ll be fresh cut that morning and you can be more adventurous in the kitchen. A soup of asparagus becomes an affordable luxury because you’ll need a good 2 kilo’s to feed 6 people. Most farms sell ‘mis-shapen’ spears which are manna to the home cook.
I love this time. Hope is in the air. New season’s produce gives the diner a sense of pure well-being – and we have only more to look forward to. If you are travelling to mainland Europe anytime soon, leave space in your suitcase to visit the local market the morning you return home. Nobody there will prevent you tasting – indeed you’ll be encouraged to do so. Rarely there will any trader serve you dud goods off the back of their stall either. Smile, show interest, ask questions and engage. You’ll come home with bounty.
Londoners have one route out here. Find your way to a good Lebanese grocer – there are plenty around the capital. These people care for ‘crudo’ and so sell fine new season produce too.
I promise to give green asparagus a good airing when it genuinely arrives, even though my ‘grass of choice would always be white and violet-tipped when we can find it – across the Channel I’m afraid unless I’m asked a ridiculous premium for my right to enjoy the season’s best. Goodness, it makes me mad.