Richard H Turner's column: Hawksmoor's executive chef on the best of spring veg
The UK is bursting with produce at this time of year, so forget imported ingredients and put a spring in your step with the season’s freshest homegrown vegetables
Spring is the most exciting season for a cook, even one whose main focus is meat. Between now and autumn, we have a rolling cast of plentiful vegetable superstars, parading their fecundity. It all begins with wild garlic and purple-sprouting broccoli, followed shortly by Jersey Royals and asparagus, with peas and broad beans heralding summer. Unfortunately, though, seasonality has fallen by the wayside somewhat in these modern times of availability.
Back when we started importing produce from all over the world, it was seen as very clever indeed to be able to provide asparagus from Peru in December or tomatoes from Spanish polytunnels in February. But now the novelty is wearing thin, because without the ebbs and flows of seasonality there's less flavour. Savvy cooks are buying seasonally.
This approach is more cost-effective: when produce is in season locally, the relative abundance of the crop should make it less expensive. Food is easier to grow in its proper season, making it more abundant, less time-intensive, and more affordable, often because there is too much of it, and it needs to be used up.
Seasonal food is also significantly tastier than food grown out of season. Foods that have had the chance to fully, naturally ripen before they've been picked will taste the way they're supposed to. Put it this way: if you've ever compared the sweetness of that Spanish tomato in February to one from the Isle of Wight in August, you know what allowing food to fully ripen means to your tastebuds.
The novelty of importing produce is wearing thin, because seasonal ingredients bring flavour
For most of us foodies, the flavour of the produce we buy is every bit as important as the cost, if not more so. When food is not in season locally, it's either grown in a hothouse or shipped in from other parts of the world, and both affect the taste. When transporting crops, they must be harvested early and refrigerated so they don't rot during transportation. They won't ripen as effectively as they would on the branch or vine, and as a result they won't develop their full flavour. Foods lose flavour just as they lose moisture when they are stored. Fresh, locally harvested foods have their full, whole flavours intact.
Eating seasonally is healthier, too. Studies have shown that some crops can have up to three times more nutrients when grown in season. Local fruits and vegetables don't have to endure as much travel, so they don't lose those vital nutrients in transit. If you harvest something early so that it can endure a long distance shipping experience, it's not going to have the full complement of nutrients that it might have had. In addition, transporting produce sometimes requires irradiation and preservatives to protect the produce, which is subsequently refrigerated during the trip. Refrigeration is often the death knoll not just for nutrients in fruits and vegetables, but also for flavour. And – guess what? – the heritage strains of vegetable we ate historically have been usurped in the commercial agricultural world by strains better suited to the rigours of transport, storage and refrigeration. Unfortunately, while creating these 'supervegetables', no one was thinking about flavour and health – just profit.
Eating seasonally and locally is also better for the environment, not least because imported fruits and vegetables can travel more than 1,000 miles to get to us. Plus, seasonal foods have typically been exposed to fewer chemicals. Foods that have been picked too early and travel long distances won't look as pretty as the seasonal ones, so to make them look more appealing, they're often given chemical ripening agents, wax coatings and other preservatives.
So look at labels to see where vegetables have been grown, or buy from farmer's markets or proper greengrocers. If you can get varieties called 'heritage' or 'heirloom' you'll get a taste of the way vegetables were before intensive farming took over. High-quality produce, packed with nutrition, will be your reward. Trust me – your tastebuds will thank you. ■