The tastes to try this April
April is here, and it’s time to bid farewell to Yorkshire rhubarb. We have been celebrating it since January, and it is now heading into its last month. But as we say goodbye, we can welcome the outdoor asparagus. There is nothing better than visiting a farm and, as the sun rises and casts a misty haze over the field, seeing the spears start to pierce the soil. It’s a sure sign that spring is here. The grower has painstakingly tried to get energy into the root, ready to burst into life when the warmer temperatures arrive.
Asparagus and rhubarb are very similar in that they both need three years to get the energy store into the root before cropping. However, with good husbandry, the asparagus will produce a crop for seven years, whereas the rhubarb will only produce for one.
There has certainly been a resurgence in asparagus over the last few years, with chefs really buying into the fact that the locally grown vegetable is totally different to the product we get all year round from South America. Because of support for the local growers, they now have the confidence to invest in this crop. I’ve seen this happening across the country, as they not only increase their acreage but also invest and improve techniques to ensure the best quality and packing. But we mustn’t forget that this is a natural product, and they don’t just shoot up in perfectly straight spears; there will be bent ones as soon as the wind blows, thinner ones, extra thick ones – every shape and size. Don’t neglect the odd shapes – they’re all useful, and you can help yourself as well as the grower. It all has a place on the menu.
After 25th March, the season of the white asparagus from the Poupard family will start, which I believe to be the best there is. It’s grown in sand with a high lime content and no chemicals, which produces the best asparagus, with no bitterness, a clean flavour and crunchy texture. You can even eat it raw when it’s shaved.
Flavour and texture are the key differences achieved with the local asparagus, which is reliant on a 24 hour soil-to-fork turnaround. This is also true of foraged items, which also have the added benefit that wild plants and fungi choose where they grow – which will be in the place with optimal nutrient levels and, because it’s natural, no pesticides. On offer in April will be wild garlic, wild leeks, sea beet, sea purslane, chickweed, hedge garlic, nettles and ground elder.
It’s a good time for some varieties of mushrooms too. St George’s mushrooms are a favourite among chefs, and they’ll be gone before you know it – so make sure you are ready. Let’s not forget that we are well and truly in the middle of the morel season, which will see them halve in price. It’s also the time for the South African cep.
Salads become amazing once again, with a lot of options all bursting into life. Kickstarting this are the new baby leaves coming from France. Available are the standard mesclun mix, which is now enhanced with baby herbs, a mix of oriental leaves or single options, including:
- Red Mizuna
- Bulls blood
- Red chard
- Yellow chard
- Red mustard frilled
- Red make
- Mini mesclun
- Mini coriander
I love the way that these leaves are grown. The climate coupled with the amazing soil results in consistency of product, and, what’s more, the leaves grow between 17-26 days – faster than weeds so no need to spray weedkillers. Sprays are sometimes useful – they are certainly OK for us to eat – but it has to be a winner to not have to use them at all.
And to go with your salad, there are many tomatoes to choose from. We’re moving away from the tasteless Spanish winter tomatoes, and we will have Italian Datterino (these are so sweet), San Marzanos and the beautiful Heritage mix from Brittany, which is really taking hold as a favourite with many different shapes, sizes and flavours. The Couer de Bouef with its ribbed edges looks gorgeous on the plate with its big red juicy flesh, and it’s also great in a burger.
We will also have an abundance of edible flowers with bright yellow cabbage, rocket and viola joined by beautiful white cream and purple bean blossom.
April is the time when berries once again start to taste like they should! My favourite is the French tulameen raspberry, which is twice the size of its Spanish competitor, and probably twice as expensive, but it also packs a punch with its flavour and juice. The French gariguette will also be ready now – you only have to put your nose to these to know they are going to taste amazing. The Wye Valley blueberry is starting to come into season. This is a great example of UK growers pushing the boundaries – you can see that they’re innovating with the quality of their flavour and juice!
Another product tumbling in price will be the Jersey Royal new potatoes. As they move to an outdoor crop, I think the flavour changes slightly, and you start to get a hint of the seaweed that the farmers use to fertilise the soil.