Flavours of February

It’s a funny old month, February. Unpredictable weather-wise and only Valentine’s day to lift the gloom of what is for many the worst month of year. But not for me because this is the month that gives us heritage winter veg at its very best and tasty signs that spring is just around the corner in the delicious form of wild leeks and garlic, the first morel mushrooms and Yorkshire forced rhubarb.

What could be more welcome on a dull day than the pink tender stems of forced Yorkshire rhubarb? It’s graded so you can get the right one for your dish from thick to thin – and don’t forget class 2 rhubarb for making schnapps – Nigella’s recipe is hard to beat. As well as being a healthy super food and very versatile in the kitchen, this uniquely northern veg – it’s not a fruit – needs our full support if it’s going to survive. There are only a handful of growers now in the legendary Yorkshire ‘rhubarb triangle’ – just 30 miles from our headquarters – down from over 200 in the 1870s. These farmers, such as our supplier Tomlinsons, still grow rhubarb the old way, just as their forefathers have for generations. Rhubarb farming is back-breaking work but the results – especially when delivered fresh from shed to table in under 24 hours – rival the world’s greatest food delicacies for flavour and texture. But please, please serve with proper custard! This is the time when other forced veg peak in terms of flavour too – so order some white chicory and dandelion for a real taste treat.

Sprouts are never better than now, finished off to perfection by Jack Frost. If you’re a forager, wild sprouts are worth the hunt as are wild leeks and fresh garlic. Foraging also bring us one of the best salad leaves ever – mesclun! In France, mesclun was traditionally foraged in the vineyards, forest borders and fields. Very high in vitamins and micro elements, these salad leaves help the body to go through the traditional lenten fast and formed the basis of original post-Christmas detox.

Brassicas are now outstanding in every way – cabbages red or white, pointed, savoy, hispy and kale are the perfect complement to hearty meat dishes such as stews, slow braises and confits with a wide range of recipes and uses. Just season the pointed cabbage and eat raw or steamed as the taste and sweetness of this vegetable is just the right balance for our palate! Bitter and bright green, kales go really well in soups or stir fries. Dutch red and white cabbages are the perfect ingredient for crunchy coleslaw with apple and nuts.

Basic roots are also at their best especially those that have been stored in sand in the traditionally way as the starch has turned to sugar and flavours have intensified – sand carrots are delicious even donkey ones! As a result, carrot cream, soup or cake will be more flavoursome now than any other time of the year. This is also true of beetroot and salsify, and swedes and turnips whose earthy flavours reach their maximum strength now and perfectly complement all kind of cured or smoked meats.

Lemons and oranges are still top quality throughout the month and we can also look forward to the first apricots from Morocco. Some exotic fruits reach their peak as summer ends in the southern hemisphere. This means there’ll be fresh grapes both red and green from South Africa. In the tropics, the rainy season is also coming to an end in many places with the dry season starting. Look out for mangoes from Brazil and Peru which are absolutely on point.

February is a month of anticipation but much depends on the weather. If it’s mild, spring delights will come earlier, especially produce from Italy such as the green Camone tomatoes, odd looking but delicious to eat. If we can, we’ll also bring you the first cherry on the vine, midi and large san marzanos tomatoes, monks beard agretti and cipolle Siciliane onions, as well as the first radicchio – tardivo and traviso – and mixed peppers in all their gloriously odd shapes and colours.

Finally, we hope to see the first aromatic morel mushrooms. This for me is a big turning point in the calendar signaling the beginning of the end of winter.

But if the weather is a shocker and these delicacies are delayed, don’t despair. The basics are at their very best giving you an opportunity to get back in touch with your roots. Embrace the challenge.