Truly, I don’t think anyone realises how hard it is being a foodie. The sun comes out, everyone else is merrily scoffing Spanish strawberries, and we’re still stuck chewing gloomily on dreary old carrots and spuds and piously awaiting “the season”.
At the moment, Britain is stuck in the middle of what’s traditionally known as “the hungry gap” – those tedious weeks when cold-weather crops are coming to an end but there’s not yet enough warmth for the new season’s stuff.
We’ve endured a particularly painful, protracted winter this year, and I’ll be honest – that Peruvian asparagus was starting to look dangerously tempting after all, who’d ever find out?). Thanks to the prolonged meteorological misery, Guy Watson of Riverford Organic Farms calculates that some crops are a fortnight behind schedule. So, no need to dust off that hollandaise recipe just yet.
But there is light at the end of the polytunnel, and all you need is a clean plastic bag to catch it. I’m talking foraging, or getting all Tom and Barbara and gathering your own dinner in the great outdoors.
A brisk, purposeful walk is actually the best way to appreciate the glories of mother nature in early spring: although I cherish the British commitment to pretending the weather’s better than it is, to be frank, you’ll catch your death lolling about in that damp grass – or, at the very least, give yourself piles. Much better to set off with a mission and a carrier bag and score some free food in the process.
Now, I’m not going to bombard you with information about prickly berries, or sweet chestnuts, because there just aren’t any in May. There’s the odd mushroom – the St George’s and the fairy ring – if you know what you’re doing but just as in the greengrocers this month, the pickings are pretty scarce.
Don’t lose heart though, because it’s the season for something that’s both easy to spot and nice enough to make it on to proper restaurant menus. You know, the kind people actually pay to eat.
No, I’m not about to bang on about nettles, which, for all the hype, I’ve always found to make bland, oddly furry soup (and I’ve not yet got over the shame of paying 50p for a bag at a London farmers’ market), or diuretic dandelions, for which its French name, pissenlit, should serve as sufficient warning.
I’m talking about ransoms, or wild garlic, which run rampant in damp woodland and shady areas from April until June. You’ll often smell the carpet of broad, spear-shaped leaves, with their delicate white flowers, before you see it: it’s pretty pungent stuff. It tastes less aggressive than the scent suggests – I always think it has an intensely green flavour, like a mixture of garlic and freshly cut grass. (Just the thing to remind you haven’t got the mower out yet this year, eh?)
The bulbs are also supposed to be a delicacy, but if you p ull them up, there won’t be any garlic next year, so like a good little forager, I generally content myself with a big bag of leaves instead.
They’re best used fresh (and well-washed, especially if, like mine, they hail from a scruffy London park full of Staffies) but if you have to store it in the fridge for any length of time, I’d strongly suggest the purchase of an airtight box, or everything from eggs to yoghurt will stink like a comedy Frenchman’s armpit.
A necessary caution, but one that makes wild garlic sound less appetising than it actually is: so far I’ve stirred it through scrambled eggs and made a punchy green mayonnaise for a new potato salad, and I still have two jars of emerald green hazelnut and wild garlic pesto sitting tight in the fridge awaiting the inevitable midweek pasta in a panic.
What’s more, unlike fragrant British berries, or spindly asparagus, it was completely free. And in foodie world, you really can’t get smugger than that.
Next issue: Nina Caplan on drink