March has come and gone, and the floods and all their troubles have evaporated away with the unexpected sunshine of the last few weeks. On this week last year I was trekking up to Everest base camp through a glorious Himalayan spring, leaving the UK in a blanket of snow. And Easter at the start of April here was colder during the day than we found during our three day stay in base camp itself, although the night time temperature did drop to -20C! (If you’re interested, read about the trip and the food we ate at my twinseverest blog). Unbelievably I’ve already eaten two Sunday lunches outside this year, and my rhubarb patch is going crazy so it’s been rhubarb crumble all the way.
This month I’m going to be working with Paul from Arcade Fisheries at a special Fish Day at Penshurst market next Saturday 5th April. We’ll be talking about buying, preparing and cooking seasonal fish together, and I’ll be cooking some of Paul’s freshest catch for visitors to try, and suggesting different ways to cook and serve what’s on the stall. At the moment we are planning to sample Dover and lemon sole, skate and Paul’s wonderful smoked cod, so come along and see what we’re up to.
April at the Farmers’ market
Easter falls in the second half of the month this year and with the mild wet winter and warm days this Spring, the growing season is well ahead, especially when compared to last year’s cold start which saw things set back by several wee. This year is quite the opposite so we are likely to get an early season for treats such as asparagus and early new potatoes if farmers haven’t been flooded out. Even so despite the longer days, April still comes with a rather restricted choice of fresh seasonal produce to choose from, which makes it the perfect month to try some of the wonderful array of prepared and preserved products that are being produced by small producers across Kent.
In recognition of all these talented people, the county has its very own food awards, The Taste of Kent Awards, this year celebrating their tenth anniversary. ( Sussex also has its own awards by the way, and as I live on the border of both I get to enjoy both but as a Kent born girl, that is probably where my heart lies!) The number of awards has grown with every year as more local food enthusiasts cast their votes in over 13 categories, with everything from butchers, fishmongers, restaurants, pubs and of course, farmers’ markets gaining recognition. This year for the first time there is a new Kent Top Fruit category, with over 70 different apple and pear varieties judged last summer at the National Fruit Show at Detling. These Awards recognize and reward the committed and hard-working producers, chefs, retailers and growers who do so much to promote this county and the quality of its ingredients. The 2014 entries were judged earlier this year, and prizes awarded at a special dinner on 13th March. Once again local cheeses made a strong showing with the cheddar-style Winterdale Shaw taking a top prize, produced on a family run farm just outside Sevenoaks. You will find many of the award winning products at your local markets, with everything from fine cheeses, local beers, handmade chocolates and wonderful preserves all recognized. Visit http://www.tasteofkentawards.co.uk for more details of award winners before your trip and then you will know what to look out for.
With the wide range of these award winning products now available across the county, you could serve a Taste of Kent menu at Easter, and have a lot of fun researching and trying the winners whilst exploring new parts of the county at the same time! The top three in each category are on the web site to give you plenty to choose from, and you could visit a short-listed pub or restaurant on your travels.
So what should else should you be buying and eating this April? As the palette turns to lighter foods with the longer days, lettuces, spinach, watercress, cucumber and spring onions are appearing, taking over from the brassicas such as cauliflower, cabbages and kale, to satisfy the desire for salads.
Foragers are out after wild garlic so buy it if you see it – the white flowers should still be in bud for the best flavour. Wrap the leaves around fish before baking, or shred the leaves and use in soups, pasta dishes and risottos.
Fish lovers will find sea bass, cod, halibut, cockles, mussels and scallops all on offer. A whole salmon is a good choice for an Easter meal, and wild salmon and sea trout from Scotland are both in season, and well worth the extra expense for a special occasion. Their firmer flesh and finer flavour come from swimming freely and feeding on a diet of crustacea. Bake whole wrapped in foil with butter and herbs and serve simply with a homemade hollandaise sauce. For meat eaters, the earliest spring lamb will be starting to make an appearance. If it’s still too early for your local lambs then at Easter serve a wonderful joint of fine rare-breed beef or pork. Another good choice is rose veal, produced here in England from calves raised on farms in association with the RSPCA’s Freedom Food programme. The name comes from its delicate pink colour. For poultry look out for Guinea fowl, whilst game dealers are selling venison, hare, rabbit and wood pigeon. You might want to try a fine game pie, either hot with plenty of savoury gravy or in a magnificent raised pie. If you don’t want to make your own, there are plenty of beautiful ready-made versions on offer.
Keep on cooking with rhubarb, now moving from the bright pink early forced variety marketed as champagne rhubarb into the darker and more sour outdoor version. Rhubarb is a versatile fruit that works in both sweet and savoury dishes but do make sure you add the right amount of sugar to balances the sour. A really good rhubarb fool is a seasonal pleasure, especially when made with local cream as the new grass is starting to add richness to the dairy produce, maybe flavoured with ginger. And local apples are still good as the storing varieties keep well into this month.
Sticky rhubarb and stem ginger pudding
The sharpness of the rhubarb balanced the sweetness of the toffee sauce in this pudding. It can also be cooked in a cake tin as it makes an excellent (if a little sticky) cake for an Easter tea
Serves 6 – 8/Prepare 15 minutes/Cook 40 minutes
150g unsalted butter
175g golden caster sugar
2 medium free-range eggs
225g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground ginger
150g light muscovado sugar
2 pieces stem ginger, chopped
4 tbsp double cream
Preheat the oven to 180C Gas Mark 4. Wash the rhubarb and place in a pan. Cover and cook gently for 8 – 10 minutes until tender. Turn into a shallow dish and leave to cool.
Beat half the butter with the caster sugar until pale and light then beat in the eggs one at a time. Sift the flour with the baking powder and ground ginger and fold into the creamed ingredients with the cooled rhubarb. Spoon into a buttered 1.75 litre (3 pint) shallow baking dish and level the surface. Cook for 25 minutes until well-risen and firm to touch.
While the pudding is cooking place the remaining butter, muscovado sugar, chopped stem ginger and cream together in a pan. Heat until melted then cook gently for 3 -4 minutes until thick. Set aside. Remove the pudding from the oven and pour over the sauce. Return the dish to the oven for 5 minutes until bubbling and golden. Serve with local vanilla ice cream.