Our neighbouring Farm shop used to have a slogan “Look at the landscape and Lick your Lips”. Well right now it would be more of a case of “Eat my Dust”.
The fields are bare: leeks, brussels sprouts and kale have vanished: the farm cold stores have been switched off as they run out of stored root veg, and the last potatoes naturally start to sprout; begging to be returned to the earth from whence they came.
Food writers have been bandying about the phrase “The Hungry Gap” for months now, but what does it mean and is it still valid?
Well, yes in Scotland - it was real. Historically our climate meant that you could not sow or plant before April without major risk of frost killing your efforts. This means that mid to late June is the first time that any veg (other than quick growing leaf) has grown to maturity: so that goes for broad beans, baby beets, carrots, cabbages, courgettes and new potatoes. Our winters may be less harsh now but even our local champion early potato grower with sandy coastal soil won’t have crop until the end of May. Domestically the larder would be empty as stores of preserved and pickled produce ran out and in more recent years the freezer would be empty too of last year’s bounty, both animal and vegetal.
Traditionally the Scottish Hungry Gap is April to mid-June. Plant early potatoes on the Ides of March and harvest 100 days later: your first new substantial food of the year. However, you - the buying public - could be forgiven for being confused because the Hungry Gap is all getting a bit blurred, and it’s fading fast. Plastic crop protection, cold storage, atmospheric storage, cheap enough refrigerated transport, and now the advent of, currently massively subsidised, renewable energy to mimic the heat and light of the sun, mean that we hardly notice as the shops are still full of all the aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes, avocadoes, sweet potatoes et al that we now consider normal along with more sheltered over-wintered British crop.
Let’s strip all those aforementioned away for a minute and what would you expect to live on in April and May in Scotland?
As it happens, a ridiculous mix of cheap as chips and luxury food. Rhubarb for one, devalued a bit by the restaurant clamour for “forced” pink rhubarb from Yorkshire sheds... available to everyone and both fruit and veg rolled into one. Asparagus for two; originally only available to the few and now with its price being driven down by mass demand and new growing techniques. Cauliflower and purple sprouting broccoli from fields not required to be ploughed up for the next cereal crop and unhearted cabbage impatiently harvested as spring greens. Then all that soft green stuff: spinach and chard, lettuces and spring onions, wild garlic and nettles, wet garlic and all the cress family. Herbs sprout anew to tickle the taste buds; perennial lovage, chives, fennel, sorrel, sage, thyme, mint and over-wintered parsley. Chervil, dill and coriander could have been sown and be cropping. All that vivid green, and those zingy flavours that our palates crave. Personally, I find it truly amazing that Nature so fully provides what our bodies need... and a little bit more to enrich our souls.
To stay in the rhythm of the seasons what might we be eating now?
The biggest, most extravagant and most herby green salad with asparagus, cauliflower steaks with some squirreled nuts and seeds for protein. Maybe we could cultivate St George’s Mushrooms?
Herby egg dishes of all sorts with the quick curd and whey cheeses from Spring milk, so spinach and ricotta filo pie would be a winner and stuffed courgette flowers a little later.
Jersey Royals or Cornish New Potatoes as our luxury import.... and worth a King’s ransom, with loads of freshly churned butter, from cows on new fresh green pasture, with chive snippets.
It is also a Waste-not Want-not time so it should probably be Wood Pigeons whose out of balance populations destroy the crops we are just sowing, and even Bunny rabbits (Sorry!), for much the same reason. As they’ve been nibbling all the new herbs, they’ll taste extra delicious. Low-fat, cheap and versatile.
Then we might have a rhubarb pavlova and any number of egg-enriched puds from sabayon to chocolate mousse and chocolate eggs of course. As I spot new giant strawberries glowing on the supermarket shelves and muse on their likely irresistibility to children, perhaps for the next generation the Easter ritual will be chocolate fountains with giant strawberries to dip.
Whatever we eat and whoever we share it with, it’s great to celebrate the coming of Spring and the turning of the seasons, that bring us new hope and thoughts of the coming treats of Nature’s Bounty.