April and with it comes spring, although when one considers the mildness of the winters we seem to have these days it is almost as though it has been a permanent spring since December. All of a sudden, the world seems a brighter place. Lots of new produce is starting to come through now, with much of it holding the promise of the summer to come.
Let’s start this month by looking at free food, (yes, I did say free!) that which grows wild in our hedgerows and woods, for this is the month when we really start to notice new additions to the floors of woods and uncultivated areas everywhere.
Over in continental Europe our cousins there understand the glories of foraging for wild foods and this month sees the start of many delicacies ready for picking in our numerous woods, coppices, hedgerows and fields. Take wild garlic for instance or ransoms as they are also known, to be found in some of the damper areas of woods around the county, their leaves are quite fantastic and have started to become a bit of a cult item in restaurants over the past few years, although the aroma is quite pungent the flavour is actually very subtle.
Or what about dandelions, or pissenlit as the French call it, they thrive on waste ground and grassy areas country wide yet who takes much notice of them, well the French certainly do, housewives can often be seen pulling up plants on the verges of country roads for the lunchtime salad. Try cultivating a wild dandelion plant while it is still young, cover it with a bucket or something similar in order to deprive the plant of all light, leave it like that for about 10 days, by excluding the light like this it results in the production of delicate light lemon yellow coloured leaves. Used in salads or where a collation of green leaves is required they add a uniquely delicate piquant flavour.
Then there are of course nettles; from about mid March and throughout April is the best time to pick this pernicious weed, while it is still young, tender and fresh. Although they are around almost all year it is only the tips of these juvenile shoots that are worth bothering about, mind you, once a taste for them has been acquired if you keep chopping them down they will continue cropping through to September. They make a great soup with the addition of the bacon the flavour is reminiscent of pea and ham except the colour is so much darker and richer, more like that of spinach, be careful when picking them, wear gloves!
These are all the easy ones, then from around mid to late March into April there are the likes of wild chervil, sea beet, pennywort, alexanders, morels, a plethora of produce if you know what to look for and and where to look and are lucky enough to find them.
As April 23rd sees St. Georges day (why is it we English do not celebrate our Patron Saints day like our near neighbours from Scotland, Wales and especially Ireland?) then it is apt also to mention the St. Georges mushroom, very much the archetypical mushroom sought after by countless generations in old established grassland, meadow, dune, and particularly on the limestone ridges, escarpments and chalk downs that dot the British landscape. Appearing in April and going on through till June, in particular areas it is quite common, and groups and rings of reasonable numbers can often be seen in some parts. Take care when picking, a gentle twisting will avoid damage and disturbance to the part of the fungus that is hidden below the soil. This along with the Morel are the two main types of wild mushroom to be found at this time of year but as the year progresses then there will be more to come!
Now back to the stuff we have to buy! Purple sprouting broccoli (did you know there is a white sprouting too?) is still around this month and well worth buying, as to are spring greens. We often see early English tomatoes around in April and considering how mild it has been I see no reason for them not to be around this year. April does however always seem too early to my mind to be buying English tomatoes, they often have very little flavour, certainly hardly any sweetness, and more often than not are extremely hard. We should also be blessed with the start of English Asparagus later this month although the months of May and June are really when it is in full swing. I even saw British Asparagus advertised as early as the 15th March this year.
With cockles coming into season at this time of year it is appropriate that I have just mentioned nettles. Try this unusual soup this weekend after pulling up those young stingers then finishing it with a few cockles or even clams if cockles are not available, unfortunately cockles can be very difficult to get hold of these days so it may be just as well to use clams. As with any mollusc always make sure they are still alive, the shells should be tightly closed or they should snap shut when handled. Cook the cockles/clams separately then substitute some of the stock in the recipe for the cooking liquor from the shellfish.
April sees the start of the trout season, many managed still waters are open all year round for trout fishing but the main wild trout season kicks off this month. Once quite an uncommon fish the trout was only for the tables of those that fished them, nowadays however they are so extensively farmed that they have become almost omnipresent on every fish counter in the land. Cheap and extremely adaptable the trout is often considered a bit of a boring fish yet there is so much one can do with it, but I must admit that when I bring one home (when I do actually manage to catch one that is!) I like it plain grilled, enhanced with a squeeze of fresh lime and served with new potatoes and a crisp green salad, and definitely with the addition of some blanched dandelion leaves.
If we are to talk about April then no conversation would be complete without the inclusion of Easter. True it does not always fall in April but more often than not it does, a moveable feast it can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25th, this date being determined by that of the Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, this year it is at the beginning of the month with Good Friday falling on 7th April. It brings with it its own foods, ones that have been around for generations, even centuries. There are the proverbial Easter bunnies, quite delicious, gamier than their reared cousins and therefore with more flavour, yet the thought of eating furry little bunnies upsets some people despite the fact that they are probably happy to eat little lambs and the occasional fluffy little chicken.
What Easter would be complete without Easter eggs, these originally signified the start of new life, rebirth and a new beginning but now they mostly only come in chocolate flavours, how rare it is to see brightly painted ones ready for rolling down the nearest hill. Simnel cake also once a great Easter tradition, Dr. Chambers in his ‘Book of Days’ (unknown date) talks of the ‘old custom to make during lent and Easter ~ a sort of rich and expensive cake, which are called Simnel Cakes’. He goes on to say ‘They are raised cakes, the crust of which is made of fine flour and water, with sufficient saffron to give it a deep yellow colour, and the interior filled with the materials of a very rich plum cake’. Then we have the ubiquitous Hot Cross Bun, why is it that they always seem to appear in the shops (a bit like the Easter Egg) often some two months in advance of Easter? Have you tried making your own at all? After all that is what it is all about isn’t it? See my recipe for the hot cross buns here
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