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Seasonal Food & Celebrity Chefs

Musings from our Rural Correspondent

TasterNewspaper and magazine chefs often seem to be unaware or unconcerned that many ingredients have a season. Naturally, the start and end dates of seasons vary somewhat across the continents of Europe and, even more, North America. In England, December through February can be considered winter; spring runs from March to May; summer extends from June to August and the remaining months, September to November, constitute autumn or fall. Your Rural Correspondent, resident in Britain, is a keen vegetable gardener and hunter-gatherer of wild delicacies. He expects to pull rhubarb from early April until the end of June. His parsnips, always best after a frost ("spring dugs" in New England), are available from about October to April. English asparagus, largely a treat of April and May, comes into season just as purple and white sprouting broccoli go out. Broad beans are usually the next vegetable on the seasonal agenda. They come into their own in May--which is terrific because little else is in season during that otherwise wonderful month. June, to some extent, but July, August and September in particular, are the months of abundance when runner beans, French beans, carrots, peas, zucchini, and numerous salad crops jostle for the cook’s attention. These too are the months for putting a wild fly-caught trout on the table, or trapping some mean-looking but great-tasting American signal crawfish. Autumn means wild mushrooms, nuts and many varieties of fruit. The shooting season for pheasant runs from 1 October to 1 February. They will not be found in a butcher’s shop outside these months. I could go on.

So why do newspaper and magazine chefs so frequently propose recipes with ingredients that are not in season? I have one in front of me. It’s from Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Best of British’ column in The (London) Times Saturday Magazine of 21 February 2009. The dish is ‘marinated chicken with minted broad beans and peas’ and it is described as ‘a fantastic, colourful dish for spring, when fresh peas and broad beans are abundant, sweet and tender.’ It sounds and looks (there is an accompanying illustration) pretty good and I will certainly give it a try. The trouble is, in the third week of February my broad bean seeds have not even been sown. I will probably be starting some off in a seed tray in my greenhouse in early March, but they will not be ready for weeks. However, at least I’ll be eating them before I get my hands on any homegrown peas. As for the mint; it’s a perennial and rather invasive herb. My vegetable patch is full of the stuff--but you wouldn’t know it in February because it is completely dormant until it gets some warmth and spring sunshine. Ramsay’s recipe also calls for, among other things, tarragon (even more invasive than mint), chervil and flat leaf parsley. I grow them all, but I cannot nip out and pick any of them in February.

In fairness to Ramsay, a chef I much admire, his recipe allows for fresh or frozen peas and beans. Furthermore, it is a simple matter to find these vegetables in a deep freeze cabinet in any supermarket in any season. Indeed, all of Ramsay’s ingredients are available in non-fresh form throughout the year and it seems likely that the finished dish will be enjoyable even in the absence of fresh produce. But then why highlight the dish in terms of ‘spring’, ‘fresh’, ‘sweet’ and ‘tender?’

Ramsay’s same, 21 February, column also includes a recipe for ‘fennel and roasted red pepper soup.’ We are told that it is ‘a fantastic soup for the summer.’ So, again, why provide details in the depth of winter when three of the principal ingredients, red peppers, fennel and dill, will be available only as imports? Fennel can be grown in the UK but is not really suited to the British climate outside of the south, except in the occasional summer when we catch more than a glimpse of the sun; sweet peppers can be cultivated successfully but, exceptional years aside, in a greenhouse only; dill, that delicate herb so well-suited to fish, flourishes outdoors in the UK--but not in February.

Ramsay is a serial offender. Other non-seasonal recipes he has published recently include poached rhubarb with ginger ice cream (The Times, 31 January 2009) and minted new potatoes and sautéed purple sprouting broccoli (both 7 February 2009). Not that he is the only perpetrator. Lindsey Bareham, again in The Times, gave us her recipe for ‘leek and lemon risotto with thyme’ on 16 May 2008. Now I grow leeks every year. They are versatile and can be dug over a long period, between mid-Fall and early Spring. By May they have always run to seed. Even if they have not, who wants to consume them in late Spring when they have been a mainstay throughout the winter? Bareham has also given us ‘wild crayfish [sic] with chickpeas’ (18 December 2008). But how does one find wild crawfish in December? In Britain they are inactive in cold weather and cannot be trapped until April at the earliest.

I anticipate that some readers will object that in these days of intercontinental air transportation any ingredient can be had, at any time of year, at least by well-heeled city dwellers. They might also point out that only a minority of cooks grow their own broccoli, leeks, carrots, tarragon, mint, dill, rhubarb and so forth. Most depend upon shops for their ingredients. All this may be true but environmentalists constantly enjoin us to use fresh and seasonal ingredients from local suppliers. By the same token they urge us to shun foods heavy with air miles. The frozen peas and broad beans in Ramsay’s marinated chicken recipe are likely to be domestically, if not locally, sourced but this is not true of many of the non-seasonal ingredients that feature in other recipes.

I am not suggesting that we adhere strictly to a culinary regime of fresh ingredients locally sourced. To do so in Britain would involve banning oranges, pineapples, mangos, avocados, and numerous other products (tea and coffee included) that the Rural Correspondent for one would hate to give up. But if we are to strengthen the ancient and environmentally friendly bond between cultivation and cooking a little help from our media chefs would be welcome.

Door with British Food in America Flag on it.
Christmas pudding in June? Summer pudding in January? Spring lamb in Fall? Butternut Squash risotto in Spring? bfia invites our readers to submit examples of recipes published when the required ingredients are unavailable.