Longer days and some warmer spring sunshine bring a sense of anticipation as May progresses and we say goodbye to the long winter. After a chilly, stormy and wet spring the first signs of the bounty that will be with us in the coming months are starting to appear as the countryside springs into life. A real harbinger of summer is wonderful English asparagus, one of the great treats of the season. The cool March and early April has kept the spears waiting in the ground but they will be pushing through the earth now, ready for harvesting. Asparagus is at its best when picked and cooked within hours, something easily achievable when bought locally at the market. Make the most of the delicate flavour by serving simply steamed with melted butter or hollandaise, or toss with crumbled local goat’s cheese, some toasted pine nuts and a simple olive oil and lemon vinaigrette. As the season progresses use in risottos, tarts, salads and soups.
Wild sea trout is one of the season’s great treats – smaller fish make a lovely meal for one. Lemon sole, cod, halibut and sea bass are all good at this time of year and shellfish fans should keep an eye out for razor clams and cockles. For meat eaters spring lamb will start to appear during the month – lambs are sold the year of their birth and the early season lamb is tender and fine flavoured. Look out for salt marsh lamb coming in at the end of May with its juicy meat and distinctive flavour. Roast and serve simply with new potatoes cooked in their skins with a sprig or two of fresh mint, and maybe some steamed samphire to enhance the salty tang to the flesh. To cook samphire just rinse and boil in water briefly – don’t add any more salt – then toss in a little local butter. The texture should be still crisp. Local reared beef and pork will be at their most succulent as the grazing starts to green up. Now is the time to splash out on steaks, chops and fillets and use them simply cooked – grilled, stir fried or griddle cooked for lighter meals.
Alongside asparagus other spring vegetables are also starting to appear after the cold of the winter. Look out for tender little early English new potatoes, giving the Jerseys a run for their money. Leaves such as spinach, watercress, rocket and lettuces can now be found sitting alongside the last of this year’s main vegetable crop of purple sprouting broccoli, spring cabbage, cauliflower, spring greens and spring onions. Radishes, spring onions and samphire mean that lighter eating is now an easy choice for the cook. And by the end of the month the first broad beans should be available and at their tender best.
The wealth of summer berries is still ahead of us but you can make the most of green outdoor rhubarb this month in desserts such as homemade ice creams and fools. Or try making your own rhubarb jams and chutneys – the tart flavour of the fruit makes a lovely preserve to spread on scones, fill sponge cakes and enjoy simply on buttered toast, particularly if you add ginger as a flavouring.
By the end of the month the earliest gooseberries should be available, ready to pair up with their perfect partner – delicate fragrant elderflowers. Just add a head or two of creamy white flowers (pick away from roads or sprayed fields and shake to remove bugs) to the gooseberries for a few minutes as they cook then lift out and discard. The distinctive flavour will remain for crumbles, cakes, fools or creamy desserts such as crème brulees and panna cotta.
Gooseberry and elderflower crumble
This is one of my favourite versions of one of my favourite puds! Its secret lies in its simplicity – wonderful seasonal ingredients that work in perfect harmony, cooked to enhance their flavour with no fuss. Serve the crumble hot or cold with really good vanilla ice cream – there really is no better way to round off a May meal, especially if the main course is an asparagus risotto with seared scallops . Pick the elderflowers on a dry day away from roadsides while the flowers are just coming out and creamy white. Shake out the sprigs to get rid of any bugs then rinse under cold water and lay on kitchen paper to dry.
Serves 4/Prepare 10 minutes/Cook 30 minutes
500g fresh gooseberries, topped and tailed
3 -4 sprigs elderflowers
150g caster sugar
125g plain flour
85g butter, cubed
50g ground almonds
25g flaked almonds to finish
1 Preheat the oven to 190C/fan oven170C/ Gas mark 5. Arrange the gooseberries in a 1.5 litre shallow ovenproof dish. Sprinkle with half the sugar.
2 Sift the flour into a mixing bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in the remaining sugar and ground almonds. Scatter over the fruit and top with the flaked almonds.
3 Cook in the oven for 40 – 45 minutes until the top is golden and the fruit tender. Serve warm or chilled with ice cream, custard or pouring cream.