Hurray for longer lighter days! As March progresses the daylight increases by a wonderful two hours every day so that, by the end of the month, we will once again be enjoying days that are longer than nights. And once the clocks go forward on 29th March, it feels like spring is properly underway. Any precious sunny days this month hold all the promise of the new season and tempt us out into the countryside.
For market visitors, what’s on offer can seem rather restricted as we wait for kinder weather conditions for animals and crops, which will respond to the increasing light and warmth with bounty to come. That’s why March is traditionally known as the hunger gap or famine month. But it’s a great opportunity to make most of the last treats of the winter and enjoy some wonderful comfort foods before they disappear again till the last quarter of the year.
I’m off to Penshurst Farmers Market this rather grey Saturday morning. A couple of girl friends are coming over tonight to watch the latest Bridget Jones movie and I’m torn between the mussel recipe shown below and my favourite Scallop and leek risotto from my Busy Mum’s Cookbook (and will probably get the ingredients for both and decide later!). Then I’ll make another favourite at this time of year to follow – a rhubarb fool made with rhubarb I’ve scattered with brown sugar and cinnamon and roasted in the oven. Then having just had a perfect version at the completely wonderful Handverk & Found in Margate’s old town, I’ll take inspiration from them and rather than mix the puree into whipped cream and custard, I’ll layer up the rhubarb puree and the combined cream and custard in layers in my vintage French wine glasses. Then as you take a spoonful the rhubarb and cold cream delightfully combine in the mouth.
So top of my list will be Rye Bay scallops, a net of mussels, creamy full fat milk and double cream from Karen at Kingscott Dairy , wild boar and apple sausages from Keiron’s Game for a lentil, sausage and roasted butternut squash dish later in the week (recipe will appear on this blog later, I promise!), and all my other regular purchases. Once my cash is spent and baskets are full, I’ll put all the perishable purchases into a cold bag in the boot, and drop into Penshurst Village Hall for a browse round the Penshurst Brocante to see if I can find any treasures for my finally more or less completed and restored cottage.
What to look out for this March
As days lengthen cabbages, cauliflower, spring greens, purple sprouting broccoli, leeks and kale are all good. They need little cooking and are at their best simply shredded and steamed. Or try quickly stir-fried with garlic, ginger and chilli for an accompaniment to good local sausages. Beautiful rhubarb is the only locally grown fruit around now. Use in fools, ice creams and sauces – it goes particularly well with a large pinch or two of ginger, or in chutneys, cakes and as a sauce for oily fish like mackerel.
For meat eaters, pork is an excellent choice (local spring lamb won’t be around for till well into April and May) and it’s still ideal weather to enjoy a hearty roast on Sunday with all the family, after a (probably muddy) walk enjoying the spring flowers. Try a shoulder joint for the best combination of flavour and texture. Or what about that eternal family favourite – a roast chicken? A slow grown bird has more flavour and better texture and goes really well with roast wedges of sweet potato tossed in cold pressed rapeseed oil and a sprinkling of ground ginger before cooking. Serve with purple sprouting broccoli.
For fish lovers, sea bass is a good choice or spoil yourself a little with wonderful local lobsters and native oysters, clams, cockles and mussels. Storms permitting, Kent and Sussex scallops are at their finest now so enjoy one of the great pleasures of the season. Mackarel and sardines are also good with the cold waters around the coast producing sparkling fresh fish with bright eyes and firm flesh. Salmon, wild if you can find it, is also an excellent choice in March and April – ideal for Easter entertaining – and many markets offer good local smoked and cures that make a lovely light lunch dish or starter for a special meal.
And if you don’t have time to cook your own, why not try a locally baked cake or sweet tart this month when the range of seasonal fruit is limited? I go to Debra’s Cake and Bake for her unsurpassable Battenburg and Rusbridge’s hot cross buns are far too good to only eat at Easter. Cold weather, the arriving spring, the first daffodils in the garden – they all make a great excuse to celebrate with local produce, if you really need one!
Mussel chowder with chorizo
I know this recipe uses frozen veg but mussels are so good at the moment and this really doesn’t work with cabbage or purple sprouting broccoli! To get your greens serve with a salad of the early new season spinach.
Serves 4/Prep 10 minutes /Cook 25 minutes
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
100g local produced chorizo or smoked bacon, cubed
1 kg waxy potatoes, cubed
750ml full cream milk
1kg mussels, scrubbed
250g frozen sweetcorn or peas
small bunch of fresh chives, snipped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Heat the butter in a large pan and add the onion and garlic. Cook over a low heat for 3 – 5 minutes until soft but not browned. Add the chorizo and cook for a couple of minutes until the fat runs then add the potatoes and stir to coat in the juices for a minute or two.
2 Pour in the milk and bring to the boil. Simmer for 12 -15 minutes until the potatoes are almost cooked through.
3 While the soup is cooking, prepare the mussels. Rinse in cold water, discarding any that are cracked or don’t close when tapped to the pan and remove the ‘beards’. Add to the pan with the sweetcorn, cover and simmer gently for 4 – 5 minutes, shaking the pan until the mussels open. Discard any that stay closed. Stir in the chives and season to taste. Serve with good bread.