WHAT'S IN SEASON?
Asparagus, Radishes, Rocket, Sorrel, Potatoes
WHAT DO WE NEED TO KNOW?
May marks the start of the most productive half of the year; May is bursting with fertility, from asparagus spears bursting through the ground to early broad beans becoming ready for picking, and even early peas ready for popping out of their pods. Add to that the new additions to the salad bowl in the form of radishes and rocket, May is just fantastic.
Our asparagus season is probably the shortest season of all of our seasonal fruit or vegetables yet one of the most special. The British asparagus season starts typically on May 1st (but can start as early as mid-April or later, depending on the weather) and traditionally ends on midsummer's day.
British asparagus is arguably the finest in the world. It has a gourmet quality, and is thought of as the most delicious vegetable available, with a subtle taste and tender texture. It has been realized that asparagus is a very fine food for a long time; the Romans revered it, and seventeenth century London was surrounded by asparagus growers who attempted to feed the city's voracious appetite for the delicate food.
British asparagus has such a fine flavor because how it is grown; that is, slowly, to allow the spears to develop a fine flavor and good texture, rather than the blanched asparagus commonly imported from other European countries. The majority of the asparagus industry in England moved to the Vale of Evesham, although today it's centred around the east of England.
The seasonality of asparagus is so important for a very crucial reason; like peas, the quality drops after cutting - the sugars present rapidly convert to starches after harvest. However, unlike peas, asparagus does not freeze well, so it must be eaten fresh, soon after harvesting, to experience it at it's best. To this end, growing your own is the best option to eat it as fresh as possible, and buying from the supermarket, even in the height of the season is the worst option, since most supermarket chains from harvest to shelf are a minimum of two days, with an added 3-4 days shelf-life dated on the product.
Growing asparagus at home is not for the inexperienced gardener; it takes a lot of effort and preparation to crop well. A bed must be prepared well with manure, and a crop isn't taken for the first two years, instead letting the crowns gain strength. You cannot put asparagus into crop rotation for it needs to be in situ for a long time, and it must be hand harvested with a special knife so as not to damage the plant. During the third year a crop can be taken, but then alternate years must be cropped at a lower yield.
Cooking asparagus is not as hard as it's made out to be; get it as fresh as possible, break off the woody ends of the spears and only peel the spears if they are really thick. Put the spears into a large pan of boiling water for no more than 5 minutes before serving with melted butter or vinaigrette.
Strangely enough, radishes are not terribly popular in England. This is a shame given the range of radishes available; the typical radish found in England is small and red and peppery in taste and used in salads. This is not the only type available however; there are types such as diakon or mooli, which are large and differing in colour and shape from long and brown or large and round and white such as the chinese radish. These are not commonly available in this country, although you may find them on specialist greengrocers or market stalls, particularly in areas with a strong ethnic population.
Radishes are a part of the same family as turnips and horseradish. They contain a chemical similar to one found in mustard, responsible for the peppery taste. Fresh radish leaves are also edible, and again have a peppery flavor and can help determine how ripe the radishes are or not.
Radishes are easy to grow, and also fast to grow. They can either be sown in succession to maintain a constant supply through the summer, or because they grow so quickly (some varieties can mature and be harvested in less than a month) they can be used as a catch crop, sown between main crops to maintain the ground and keep it weed free and productive when not needed for any other crops.
Another peppery treat, rocket is a seasonal treat worth the wait. It's available all year thanks to supermarkets, and there are varieties that can be sown in the autumn to survive mild winters, but it's well worth waiting, and growing your own - you won't be able to beat the taste and value for money.
Rocket should be sown in March and April, and will only take six weeks for the plant to reach maturity. Rocket is easy to grow, and a repeat cropper; it takes up little space, and grows fast. When it is cut, more leaves grow to replace those cut, and you can harvest it constantly until it bolts (goes to seed) in the summer, which tends to turn the leaves stalky and bitter.
Rocket is a relatively new addition to our palette, becoming fantastically popular in the 1980s and 1990s, but now has settled into position as a rather curious salad ingredient, adding a peppery taste to the salad bowl. The flavor gets stronger as the leaves get bigger, and is an interesting addition to any green salad.
Yet another salad leaf capable of flavouring the salad bowl, sorrel appears when there is little other fresh seasonal greenery available. Sorrel, with its narrow, pointed leaves, can be available as early as February, but is at its height in Spring to Summer. As well as being used as a salad leaf, sorrel can be used as a substitute flavouring in tarts and turnovers, when the last of the stored apples have run out, before the early gooseberries kick in. The sharpness in taste of sorrel is caused by oxalic acid, which is also found in the leaves of its relative rhubarb.
Potatoes seasonal you say? But we eat potatoes all year round! While that's true, it's because we either import them from abroad, or use them from a stockpile of the previous seasons' crop, for potatoes store very well. Britain eat more potatoes than any other European country, even more than Ireland. While they're not generally seasonal, certain varieties are and should be experienced when in season for the best flavor.
For a vegetable so deeply ingrained in our diet, potatoes have not been with us for long, only coming over from South America in the sixteenth century. Like tomatoes (for they are closely related and can in fact be grafted with tomatoes), they were treated with immense distrust at first, and even when accepted, they first became a standby winter crop for when grain harvests failed. They had become a staple part of our diet by the 19th century, but even more so in Ireland, where each person ate up to 5 kilos of potatoes per head each day, which proved devastating when the Irish potato famine hit.
How are potatoes seasonal? There are three types; first earlies, second earlies and maincrop. Quicker maturing (and usually smaller) earlies are available usually from April onwards until July, while maincrop take until July onwards till November to mature. Jersey Royals are usually the first earlies to appear, in late April, helped by the warm Jersey climate and the nutrient rich seaweed fertilizer used in their growth. Many early varieties tend to be waxy, while later maincrop varieties are more floury and better for baking, mashing, roasting and chipping. Skins on maincrop potatoes are "set" which means they should be peeled off rather than scrubbed like earlies, although try not to peel off too much, for much of the goodness sits just beneath the skin.
Broad beans, beetroot, peas.