Flavours of September
September is the month that will pay massive dividends if you’re working with the seasons and want the best when it’s available, but you’ll need to be on the ball. There’ll be so much local produce coming at you it will make you dizzy and on top of this there’ll be some real beauties from Europe too.
Mushrooms are always a winner this month and the Scottish offer of chanterelle and girolle take centre stage. The quality and flavour are outstanding and the price makes them accessible to all. Also to look out for are the graded cep bouchon and black trompette – all at the mid £20 mark.
As I mentioned last month, stoned fruit will be at its best with many varieties of plums such as excalibur, jubileum, marjorie’s seedling, opal and everybody’s favourite, Victoria. If there’s a time to have plums on the menu it’s now – not when they are travelling halfway around the world – but make sure you get them when they’re ripe. Don’t store them in a fridge – keep them out and they will just ooze juice and flavour! Weather permitting there will still be some damsons in September, but be quick. By now, menus should have moved on from peaches and nectarines as these start getting a bit woolly.
From France, we’ll get some amazing grapes. The Chasselas de Moissac and Muscat de Hambourg with designated AOPs are the sweethearts of local growers. Both have great heritage, grown in rich soil on the Moissac slopes which also produce lots of plums, melons, apples and cherries. Although they have pips, something we’re not keen on in the UK, they are juicy, flavourful and the aroma and crisp-tasting pulp are just outstanding.
Fresh almonds are finishing but you’ll have the chance to do some foraging as local walnut trees should be laden. When the nuts begin to appear on the ground with split hulls it’s time to get cracking. Once you have collected them, pull the hulls. If they are ripe the tissue between the hull and kernel should be brown. After storing for a couple of weeks in fresh air, the hulls will start to break in a crisp manner. Hey presto, you can now use them!
I was amazed a few years ago to see fresh walnuts in France presented in a berry punnet. So full of moisture and with a distinct flavour, they are yet another great example of fresh is best.
We’ve not finished with nuts as the first cobnuts will be available in September and if you live in Kent where they are mainly grown, again you could be onto a free winner. When they are first available they taste deliciously ‘coconut-like’ but later in the season they taste more like a hazelnut.
So-called forgotten vegetables will all be coming back on board this month: red meat radish, crapaudine and white beetroots, chervil and parsley roots and a much-neglected fruit – quince. From the same family as the apple and pear, quince is now making a concerted comeback. It’s bitter and should not be eaten raw. It is very high in pectin, especially when it’s unripe, and so is perfect for jams, jelly and quince pudding. It has a very strong perfume and when added to desserts like apple pies it really enhances the flavour. One of its most popular uses is in making a paste or membrillo that’s perfect to serve with cheese.
We’ll also have the fantastic Provence black fig which is my favourite. Although I tend to promote using local produce when it’s in season, this really is another gem that I think we should be using, especially as the only fig variation available is from Brazil.
The fastest moving fruit of all in September is the local apple crop. The varieties that will be coming at you are numerous, so play about with them and find your favourites. This month, my favourite is the Worcester Pearmain with its distinctive strawberry flavour.
Fresh beans will still be abundant and though English runners are nearing the end there are some lovely French varieties. The French Tarbais bean is a classic example. Brought to Europe by Christopher Colombus, it took to the sunny, dry climate of southwest France brilliantly. The Bishop of Tarbes introduced the bean to farmers in the Tarbes region at the foot of the Pyrénées where it flourished. They are available fresh or semi-dry. Picked from late August through September, they are perfect in a traditional Gascon cassoulet.
The Tarbais bean is a pole bean, and is planted in May alongside corn so that the corn stalk can support the bean vine as these can grow up to eight feet. Tarbais beans are picked by hand, but in the 1950s a switch to industrialised methods of farming led to a huge decline. By the 1980s, this decline was so apparent that a group of traditional farmers feared the bean would disappear altogether. Along with the department of agriculture, this group set out to cultivate and protect the Tarbais bean and it became the first bean to be granted the “Label Rouge” and given IGP status.
Today, there’s only a small, closed cooperative in Tarbais that is allowed to use that name for their beans, and production is tightly regulated. They all grow a single strain, Alaric, which is harvested entirely by hand. True Tarbais beans are identified as “Label Rouge” on the packaging so you know you’re getting a traditional product of outstanding quality.