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MURRAY CHALMERS: Eat the seasons to enjoy produce at its best

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Enjoying seasonal and local food is the way to savour produce in its prime, says Murray Chalmers, weekly food writer for The Courier’s food and drink magazine, The Menu

While we struggle to process the enormity of change in our new world, the last few weeks have seen some green shoots of optimism finally bursting out – and it’s not just that damn lark ascending again over the asparagus fields or the pungent smell of wild garlic on the muddy riverbank.

These celebrations of the renewed vigour of spring, coupled with a hit of Vitamin D from the sky instead of a bottle, have been much needed for mental as well as physical sustenance.

Right now, “every little helps” is not just a supermarket slogan – it’s something that marks and heightens every kind gesture we can make for each other.

It’s been tough going, even though I count myself as one of the lucky ones.

Despite mental health awareness week running recently from May 18-24, not enough has been written or discussed about the nation’s state of mind throughout this pandemic – and there is a very real fear that there is a time-bomb waiting to explode once we actually stand back and survey the wreckage.

Murray Chalmers.

Post corona and Brexit, the ground that once seemed to hold us so firmly won’t form much of a recognisable landscape, which is a fairly terrifying thought for anyone.

In basic terms, never has standing at a crowded bar seemed more thrilling or so far away.

Turmoil

Adding to this turmoil we haven’t been able to look to many of our elected leaders as examples of anything other than moral turpitude, the great and notable exception to this being our wonderful Nicola Sturgeon.

What a time to be alive! The Westminster Cabinet’s delusional/psychotic ramblings make the complex musings of psychiatrist RD Laing feel like a socially-distant walk in the park – even if 2020’s amble feels like Machiavelli on a day trip to Trumpton with borders patrolled by Priti “she’s NOT vacant” Patel.

Under her British diktats our British lebensraum has never felt more threatened, our British joie de vivre never more stifled, our British esprit de corps never more corpulent.

What with Prince Charles instructing us plebs on to the berry picking fields (cue a rallying three second photo op of him and Camilla showing up dangling privilege and Duchy Originals buckets at a fruit farm), the lunatics have finally taken over the asylum. God help us all!

One unexpected delight during this time of madness has been the brilliance of Meggie Foster, whose online sketches have been both a coruscating critique of our times and also side splittingly funny. I laughed for an hour non-stop.

Seasonality

As usual, much current pleasure is provided by food, especially since I’ve given up alcohol.

Asparagus season is in full swing and we only have a very short time span to enjoy it; this made me think about seasonality and how important it is to enjoy food that is as local as possible, at a time when the produce is in its prime.

With seasonality I have always been guided by three cookery books which, for me, give heft and focus to the culinary calendar in that they split the year into weeks, months or seasons.

They are The Independent Cook by Jeremy Round, River Café Cookbook Green and Week In, Week Out by Simon Hopkinson. All are indispensable to the seasonal cook.

Seasonal food is really about the waiting and the celebration; there is something so joyous and sensual about the act of anticipation, in food and so many other basic needs of life.

Now that we singletons can’t embark on new physical friendships, relationships or hugs (Matt Hancock’s hilarious euphemism for sex is “no hugging new friends”) then we have to take our sensuality where we find it – and if it has to be on the asparagus field, so be it!

With the right conditions, an asparagus crop can grow six inches in a day, but the start of the season can be delayed by a spate of bad weather; if this is protracted then things fall apart.

Asparagus

This season started a little later and continued more sporadically, thus you really have to keep checking daily availability with your supplier (I get mine via the venerable Eassie Farm in Angus, who also supply retail, as do Lunan Bay Farm).

It’s so worth the wait because the joy of newly-harvested asparagus served simply with melted butter or homemade hollandaise is really the joy of the Earth turning and the sun shining.

Eassie asparagus.

That’s a lot of bang for your fiver! Follow up the asparagus with a punnet of strawberries (the best are from the wonderful Strawberry Shed at Forgan roundabout, just outside Newport) and you have summer on two plates.

Pour a glass of chilled rosé and you have contentment for less than £15. Drink the rest of the bottle and you find the meaning of life – at least for a night.

Asparagus from Eassie is one of the seasonal veg stocked by Fraser Reid at his wonderful shop Fraser’s on Dundee’s Perth Road. This is the kind of shop we must all support because it’s independent and thus the produce is largely local, seasonal and top quality.

On average around 60% of the fresh produce in the shop is from a radius of six miles away, backing up one of the shop’s aims to support local farmers as much as possible.

Here you find a largely seasonal selection of fruit and veg, together with a discerning range of olive oils, spices, dairy produce, hams, cheeses, smoked fish, bread, and wine.

Treasure Trove

This is the kind of shop I remember as a kid, a treasure trove of good things which inspire you to cook – and it’s so important that we continue to support such places before we lose them. Fraser Reid is one of the unsung heroes of the local food world.

Whilst seasonality is celebrated in vegetables, it’s perhaps most overlooked with fish – but actually it’s vitally important for so many reasons.

Jeremy Round’s book has a breakdown of which fish is best eaten each month although any good fishmonger will be able to advise on this.

Mine, Lewis Lowrie of David Lowrie Fish, says: “Seasonality to food is what water is to fish. Seasonal produce is always going to be the best thing you can buy when it comes to quality, price and, importantly, sustainability.

“Everyone should try to buy with the seasons, using that as an opportunity to try all types of seafood when they are at their best throughout the year. Doing so would be a lot better for our oceans and more delicious and interesting for all of us.

“For this to happen I think everyone working within the food industry has a role in educating the public on what’s best and when.”

Scottish shellfish

What fish could we eat more of to celebrate seasonality? “In the early months of the year I would eat the more overlooked types of fish such as gurnard or John Dory, rather than haddock or cod,” says Lewis.

“Coming into the warmer summer months – like right now – you get fantastic line-caught and locally landed mackerel. Towards the end of the year, in the colder months, I would eat all the wonderful Scottish shellfish we have on our doorstep, from West coast creel caught langoustines to local brown crab from the East coast”.

I can personally vouch for the mackerel right now; it’s become my go to weekday lunch – simply fried and served with lemon and some rocket leaves, it’s easy, quick, highly nutritious and cheap.

Gillian Veal is a cook who thrives on seasonal produce. Many will know her from her brilliant Parlour Café on Dundee’s West Port; others will know her from her recent diversification to the café on the beautiful Cambo Estate in Fife.

Having closed her doors just before lockdown, Gillian has found that the change has given her a renewed sense of purpose akin to when she first started.

A recent trial of a set meal available to pre-order through the event catering arm of her business has been so successful that pre-orders sell out in a day.

Edible garden

The weekly changing, themed menus make extensive use of seasonal produce, a factor that was enhanced by Gillian’s access to the gardens at Cambo.

She says: “When I started to work alongside the gardeners seasonality became the most important factor when creating a menu.

“Once you spend real time in an edible garden and witness first-hand the experience and patience that goes into growing produce, you have to work with it. I had to see through a whole year in the garden to really understand that.

“Every vegetable, herb, fruit and edible flower that comes into its own excites me; the whole root to stem movement of using every bit of the plant is so inspiring to me right now”.

A larger textbook business model for seasonality and sustainability is also in Fife – Balcaskie, an extensive modern working estate in the East Neuk.

Here the underlying ethos is farming to produce food naturally, with seasonality being part of that approach.

As such they have found that the move away from agrochemicals and synthetic farming has emphasised the importance of the skill of the farmer and thus encouraged experimentation and diversity.

This contrasts with modern conventional farming which has increasingly become about producing a standard product as cheaply as possible.

Bowhouse

The commercial window for the estate is the fantastic Bowhouse market, which encourages and enables those passionate about produce from the East Neuk/Scotland to maximise it.

A visit to Bowhouse is a true feast for the senses and one that always resonates in terms of seasonality.

It just bristles with enthusiasm and celebration, from stalls selling the freshest vegetables through to Futtle organic brewing (booze, coffee and vinyl from Triassic Turk – oh joy!) to the life-affirming chocolate brownies from Artisana.

Everything is good here because it’s all tightly vetted by people who really care about food and the experience of presenting it and buying it.

I was once in the bar at nearby Kinneuchar Inn when the very excited top London chef Margot Henderson rushed in from Bowhouse clutching some huge, dirty carrots, wondering if she could get them on the plane back to London.

Until Bowhouse market is back in our lives check out their delivery service on their website.

Kinneuchar Inn

A few miles from Bowhouse is the Courier/Menu award-winning restaurant of the year, Kinneuchar Inn. There James Ferguson is itching to get back to cooking what he specialises in – gathering ingredients at their peak and cooking them to perfection.

He says: “Seasonal produce has been an integral part of my cooking for a long time. Getting something smack in season and at its very best is a complete joy. If something already tastes amazing then my job is easy as the less I arse around with it the better!

“Knowing things have a short season makes it all the more exciting using them at their best. It’s always a buzz receiving the first asparagus or a delicious bag of autumnal squash.”

“Many seasonal things are still overlooked. The seasonality of a cucumber, for instance; all year- round people buy these sad plastic-wrapped sticks but when you get a good cucumber in August/September they can be so delicious and they come in so many different varieties.

“Some are sweet and almost melon-like whilst some are crisp, with a solid skin.

“I pickle kilos of them to serve all year round as pickling and preserving things at their best is another great example of seasonality.”

As we roll towards summer don’t forget Shakespeare’s wise words: “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date”.

Embrace and enjoy!


Read more in this series…

MURRAY CHALMERS: Championing the 1970s – the decade that taste forgot

MURRAY CHALMERS: Baking bread in a time of crisis

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