The best of May

It’s May, and what a special month we have to look forward to! It’s an Aladdin’s cave, as the early Spring produce that was expensive comes into the reach of everyone as the prices come down. The new summer produce will also begin to come in.

The highlight is asparagus and, fingers crossed, the weather will be kind to us, giving us nice warm nights as well as days to warm the soil and get the bulbs cracking. The renaissance in UK asparagus has gathered pace over the last few years, allowing growers to invest in the crop. It takes three years to get to full yields so expansion takes time, but unlike other roots such as rhubarb, which is finished after one crop, the asparagus root will give a good ten years growth so the investment follows through. Each part of the country now has specialised asparagus growers each with their own twist; organic, hand graded and tissue cleaned, ice bathed, specially packed, electronically graded and polytunnels. You can get the full range of colours from British growers as well – white and purple as well as green. It is amazing to see how the industry is flourishing. However, please do not forget it is a crop and doesn’t grow perfect: if it is windy the sticks will be bent and there are thin and fat ones etc. Each can have a place on your menu and by using it all you can get some amazing prices. As if there aren’t enough options, there will also be wild asparagus from France.

Fresh green almonds have the shortest of seasons, but May is their month and they are a must! The fuzzy green hull and the soft nut inside are such a delicacy. A crisp crunchy shell and then the watery tangy flavour of the nut, the taste is like a cross between grape and granny smith. My favourite way to eat them is washed and then tossed in olive oil with salt on – a great bar snack that your customers will not have seen before. There are also many ways to use the inner, but however you serve it, the key thing is that they must be fresh!

May is mushroom heaven, with St George still being available at the beginning of the month alongside beautiful cep, morel, girolle and mousseron.

There will be an abundance of soft fruits available, with white and yellow and flat peaches, nectarines and apricots flooding in from Europe. The choices will be endless with prices to match, generally with the size and taste dictating the cost. From my experience, the large fruit comes from the best kept trees – the size shows that they are pruning properly, which in turn means that they are also looking after the soil in the best way. The fruit is being allowed to mature and the goodness will follow through in juice and flavour. There will also be some beautiful big fat cherries. More on stone fruits next month as the season is well and truly underway – especially the apricots!

The outdoor English strawberry will burst to life again at this time of year, to join the Gariguette strawberry from France. It is dependant on weather, but it is one of the signs that spring is changing to summer. The early ones will be grown in polytunnels, and as more growers move to this method it will extend the crop from now until November. If beautiful raspberries are what you’re after, there is only one: the French Tulameen. These are large in size but taste just amazing!

UK baby vegetables will also appear in this month, and they have an extra sweet taste. Fennel, leeks, white turnip, a full range of beetroots and carrots of every colour. We can also expect to see baby purple artichokes again as growers look to take on the European growers. Spring cabbage will be tender and flavoursome, so switch to this instead of the standard savoy, which will, to be frank, be rubbish throughout May. Still available are European broad beans and garden peas, and my favourite, the French borlotti beans.

Jersey Royals will have fallen in price and will still be lovely, but another, less well known option is the Ile de Re Potato. This variety is from a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), where old methods of farming are still used – it is the only potato to have this honour.

The story goes that Ile de Re – which is near La Rochelle – grows potatoes because of the English. In 1627/1628, the Duke of Buckingham came to the island with 100 knights and 5000 soldiers. For understandable reasons, France asked them to go back home.

But not all the English soldiers left; some stayed to farm the potatoes they had brought with them. I’m not sure how historically accurate this is, but this is an exceptional French product with English origins. And as this story was originally told to me by my grandma, we’ll believe it!

The terroir is special, and to add to this, the soil is fertilised using algaes collected from the beaches in the time-honoured fashion. This particular terroir is in a restricted area, with no manure. The chance combination of the right crop and the ideal natural habitat has produced a really exceptional product, and it was promoted by none other than Pierre Gagnaire last year. Sourced directly for a limited time in the year, this is the perfect ingredient for an exceptional meal. It could be the centrepiece of your May menu – it only needs a piece of butter, salt and a hint of pepper to be extraordinary.