Spring arrives at Penshurst Place – the most glorious setting for a farmers’ market..
Another month, another market blog post and, unbelievably, eleven months since they arrived for a six month project, the builders are still turning at my cottage at 7 in the morning, and I am beginning to forget what normal life feels like. But the end is finally in sight, I’ve glimpsed the light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe it will all be finished before my daughter’s wedding in three months after all.
The best thing is that I am now beginning to get back into cooking in my new kitchen, and feel excited about it too. After what feels like months of living on toast and takeaways, this Saturday (2nd) I will be off to Penshurst to stock up and refill my freezer for the month ahead. Here’s my ideas for what I might be putting in my basket.
What to buy this month….
The arrival of April after what feels like a long winter sees spring really starting to get into gear as longer days with more light stimulate growth and make us all feel better after a long winter. Lambs are gamboling in the fields, the hedgerows are greening up and wild garlic is sprouting near streams and rivers. For food lovers although the month still comes with a rather restricted selection of fresh seasonal produce to choose from, it’s the perfect time to try some of the wonderful array of prepared and preserved products from talented producers across Kent and the south east.
The Taste of Kent Awards for 2016 were awarded last month, as increasing numbers of local food enthusiasts cast their votes in over 13 categories, and everything from butchers, fishmongers, restaurants, pubs and, of course, farmers’ markets gain well-earned recognition. These awards celebrate and reward the committed hard-working producers, chefs, retailers and growers who do so much to promote the county and the quality of its ingredients. You will find many of the award winning products at your local markets, with everything from fine cheeses, pies and pastries, local beers and wines, handmade chocolates, artisan bread and wonderful preserves all recognized. Visit http://www.tasteofkentawards.co.uk for more details of award winners before your trip to your local market and then you will know what to look out for.
I’m going to be searching out one of this year’s award winners – pies from the Paramour Pie Club based down in Deal. Their Mr Mcgregor’s Pie was a little parcel of rabbity heaven – a scrumptious filling encased in perfect short pastry that had absorbed the flavours of the local Stour Valley Game rabbit (who won best Butcher/Meat producer) and Little Stour Orchard cider used in the recipe. I’m off down to Deal to try out some of their other pies as soon as possible (tomorrow afternoon in fact for a pop-up pie session!) and I recommend trying a bottle or two of Little Stour Orchard cider to wash them down. Perfect for a spring picnic in between the hail showers!
I’ll also be putting a loaf or two of Phil Hemming’s fabulous Hemmings Bakehouse sour dough bread in my basket at Penshurst, along with a wodge of his foccaccia, fragrant with good olive oil and a crunch of sea salt. A few weeks ago I paid a visit to Phil at his bakery on Claire and Guy Eckley’s farm at Staplehurst where they produce their Pure Kent rapeseed oil, and grind their own wheat for their range of flours.
Wooden wonder – Claire Eckley’s flour mill
All the flour is milled to order by Claire in small batches so Phil gets to use a freshly milled product in his breads, grain grown locally and milled just a stone’s throw from where he mixes up the dough, shapes and bakes his loaves. Not many bakers can make that claim!
So what else should you be buying and eating this April? Fish and seafood lovers will find sea bass, cod, halibut, cockles, mussels and scallops all at their finest now. A whole salmon is a good choice for a spring celebration, as 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. I’ll be buying wonderfully meaty smoked haddock fillets from Paul Saxby of Arcade Fisheries to make the fishcakes below. It’s one of my favourite fish, and I use it in so many recipes, such as the chowder or creamy potato gratin from my Busy Mum’s Cookbook, both perfect for this time of year when the weather can be a bit iffy but I yearn for lighter dishes. And next month on May 7th I’ll be cooking at Penshurst with Paul for the market’s Fish Day, showing how to cook some of the less well-known fish he sells, such as gurnard and brill, and offering tips on storing and cooking the finest freshest fish you will find in the whole of the south of England.
For meat eaters, the earliest spring lamb will be just starting to make an appearance as the month advances although it’s really May before this season’s lamb appears on most menus. If it’s still too early for your local lambs, then enjoy a wonderful joint of fine rare-breed beef or pork for a family Sunday roast.
Try a joint of Gloucester Old Spot pork – perfect for a spring Sunday lunch with a spiced rhubarb sauce instead of apple
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 perfect for an bank holiday weekend picnic at the end of the month. If you don’t want to make your own, there are plenty of beautiful ready-made versions on offer.
As the palate craves lighter foods with the longer days, lettuces, spinach, watercress, cucumber and spring onions are starting to arrive, taking over from the brassicas such as cauliflower, purple sprouting broccoli, cabbages and kale, for those yearning for salads. Foragers are out after wild garlic (and nettle tops) so buy a bunch of wild garlic if you see it or go out and pick it yourself. It grows in damp places so beside streams – 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.
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 grown version. It’s such 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 dairy produce, maybe flavoured with a little ginger. And local apples are still good as the storing varieties keep well into this month.
Here’s my must-cook recipe this month…
Smoked haddock fishcakes with wild garlic butter sauce
I often make these fishcakes as they are a family favourite – I buy a large fillet of smoked haddock at the market and pop it in the freezer so I can make up a batch when it suits me. At this time of year when I’m out with the dogs walking along the banks of the river Medway, I’ll pick a handful of wild garlic to use in this simple sauce. If you can’t get wild garlic, use a mix of fresh herbs – basil, dill, chives and parsley – and add a crushed clove of garlic
Serves 4/Prep 25 minutes/Cook 30 minutes
Smoked haddock goes well with a simple wild garlic sauce
600g old potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
2 medium eggs
450g undyed smoked haddock fillet
2 small leeks, finely sliced
juice of ½ lemon
1 tbsp capers, finely chopped
2 tbsp seasoned flour
2 tbsp cold pressed rapeseed oil
For the sauce:
2 shallots, finely chopped
100ml white wine
75ml double cream
3 – 4 tbsp shredded wild garlic leaves
1 Cook the potatoes in boiling water for 15 – 18 minutes until tender then drain thoroughly, return to the pan and allow to dry for a minute or two then mash. Put the eggs in a pan of cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for 8 minutes then run under cold water till cool, peel and chop. While the potatoes and eggs are cooking place the smoked haddock in a shallow pan, just cover with cold water, bring to the boil and poach for 8 – 10 minutes until just cooked through – the flesh will be opaque. Drain off the liquid and flake the flesh.
2 Cook the leeks in the butter in a medium frying pan for 4 – 5 minutes until soft but not brown then stir into the potato mixture with the lemon juice. Fold through the flaked fish, eggs and chopped capers. Season to taste. Shape the mixture into eight patties. Place the flour in a shallow bowl and dip the fishcakes in it to coat lightly. Chill until needed.
3 Make the sauce. Melt a small piece of the butter in a pan and add the shallots. Cook gently until soft but not golden then add the white wine and boil until reduced by half. Add the cream and bring to simmering point. Gradually whisk in the butter in small pieces to give a smooth sauce. Check seasoning and add the wild garlic. Keep warm while you cook the fish cakes but don’t allow to boil.
4 Heat the oil in a shallow non-stick frying pan and fry the fishcakes for 6-8 minutes until golden brown and cooked through, turning occasionally. Drain on kitchen paper and serve with the garlic sauce and steamed shredded spring cabbage.