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Village Food & Drink

Fields of gold

Posted on April 21 2013 at 1:40:17 0 comments

Oilseed rape

Mary Green points out some more ways to enjoy cooking and eating seasonal foods.

March came in and went out like a lion. Everyone was fed up with the east wind at the end, covering our trees with snow at the time the blackthorn and plum blossom should be showing.

The writers even had to make last-minute changes to The Archers where the script originally had people talking about the lovely spring flowers!

Phil the Village weatherman and I were both wrong in thinking April might start off better – it didn’t. Even with better weather from mid-April, everything in the countryside will be much later than usual.

The only positive I can see is that there hasn’t been a “false spring” to tempt things out early and then blast them, as there was last year.

I think I shall start recommending that, this year, you read the previous issue of The Village, and the previous page of the Village Calendar, to see what you might find in the countryside.

My guess is that the open week at Peck Wood for the bluebells will probably be in May, not April. There is a Bluebell Tea afternoon in Peck Wood on May 15 (2.30–6pm).

Last year I saw bluebells in March, then they got chilled and soaked in April, and were still going well in May when I did the Broadmoor Wood walk that’s on the May calendar page. It’s hard to believe it, but the hawthorn blossom should be out soon too, when you read this.

Towards the end of March I spent a week in south Devon, in a remote spot in the Tamar Valley where spring had really come. We were in the middle of woods which were crammed with wild garlic, primroses, wood anemones, cherry-plum blossom – and miles of daffodils.

It is an area where daffodil growing was the main business, once the copper, tin, silver and arsenic mines had closed down. Everywhere was covered in mosses, ferns and lichens – signs of damp and clean air – and it looked like a rainforest.

Though there are only a few flower farms now, the daffodils escaped long ago and are all over the hedges and woods. Some are the true native daffodil, small and pale, but others are the whole range of cultivated species, growing happily everywhere.

We had some great meals of stir fried wild greens (garlic, sorrel, cow parsley, golden saxifrage, bittercress, nettles, dandelion, meadow-sweet, ground elder, goose-grass.) It was a bit of a shock to come back to snow.

Farming is continuing to be difficult here, with many farmers beginning to get a grip on preparing land and sowing crops just as the next lot of snow came. And you may have seen the TV pictures of kids sledging down the Jersey potato fields in March!

In May, you should be seeing one of the more recent transformations of the countryside, fields of oilseed rape. However, I have heard that many farms have completely lost their crop, if they managed to sow it in the winter, and have worked the fields down again for late-sown spring barley. Others have a crop of rape, but still very small and late. So, make the most of it!

It is a break crop, which means it is grown in rotation with wheat or other cereals, improving the soil recovery between crops. So you won’t usually see it in the same fields year-on-year.

The golden fields of oilseed rape flowers have made such a dramatic impact that coachloads of tourists come to see them in the Cotswolds. The flowers have a strong smell and are a very vivid yellow.

It’s a bit of a “Marmite” crop though – you love it or hate it. I think it’s beautiful, and I love its product, but I’m not sure about its environmental effects.

Though known from medieval times as a lamp-oil, it began to be planted here in the 1970s when a more edible variety was bred. Before that, the only yellow fields (apart from the later buttercup-filled pastures) were mustard (mostly in East Anglia) or those where a weed called charlock had got out of hand! Mustard, charlock, turnip and rape are close relatives.

Rape was grown in the 19th century as a fuel oil for steam engines, and is still used as a bio-mass fuel. It was next grown as an animal feed, then as a mass-produced oil for use in manufactured food. Canada and China have huge areas under rape, mostly genetically modified.

Then someone realised that virgin, cold-pressed rapeseed oil is delicious. It is a golden oil with a nutty taste, full of omega 3 and unsaturated fats, very good for you. It can be used anywhere you would use olive oil, and more, because it is better to cook with, supporting high cooking temperatures better.

It’s English, too. You can get several varieties from the Cotswolds and at least one from Staffordshire, and there are more and more from the north of England.

There is a world of difference, though, between real golden cold-pressed oil and bland commercial “vegetable oil,” which is often rapeseed but is produced in a way that loses it flavour.

I remember in my youth how olive oil was a rather tasteless thing you bought from the chemist, and it wasn’t until the last few decades that you could routinely buy good virgin olive oil.

Similarly, it can be hard to buy cold-pressed rapeseed oil, but most big supermarkets and many farm shops have it, at about the same price as extra-virgin olive oil.

I use it all the time. If you want to cut down on butter because of problems with animal fats, and don’t fancy any of those butter substitutes (have you seen what they contain?) you can feel free to eat rapeseed oil – in moderation as it has calories like any oil. I use it in the home-made bread and savoury cakes I described last month, as well as frying and roasting.

Rape is insect-pollinated, so the fields attract bees and other insects, which is good for the environment. Some people don’t like the flavour of honey from bees that have fed on it, but it is rather a fact of life for beekeepers now, and some contract with farmers to feed their bees on rape nectar.

However, most farmers use fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. It is very challenging to grow rape organically as it has a high level of insect pests and fungal diseases, and I can’t find any producers who promise that it has been farmed in an environmentally friendly way.

The other food plant I associate with May is asparagus. There is an uncommon native variety which grows in parts of Cornwall and Pembrokeshire. The one we eat is not a native plant, though it is naturalised and grows in areas with sandy soils in the east and south.

However, it is a local crop, having its “headquarters” in the Vale of Evesham, Herefordshire and the Wye Valley.
It is commonly called sparrow-grass, or just grass. The very young thin spears are called sprue, and are not quite so tasty, but the first plump ones are stunning. The sight of stalls full of it at the farmers’ market warms my heart!

There is another plant called Bath asparagus, otherwise known as spiked star of Bethlehem. When I lived in Wiltshire it was all over the woods and hedges around Bath and Bradford-on-Avon.

People still eat it: the unopened flower-spikes look and taste a bit like asparagus, though it is from a different family. No-one is sure if it is a true native plant or was brought over by the Romans to Bath, as it is widespread in the Mediterranean area.

Asparagus is one of the things that is best eaten absolutely fresh, within minutes of picking, while the sugars are still in it. You can then eat it raw (well I certainly can), but it’s really good cooked for just a minute and dressed with butter or rapeseed oil, with maybe a little wild garlic, salt and pepper. Eat it through May and June while it’s here.

The season traditionally runs from St George’s Day to Midsummer Day. The imported stuff has lost a lot of its flavour as well as often being grown unsustainably and exploitatively, and coming many air-miles.

It is an ancient herb (shown by its Latin name Asparagus officianalis) dating back to 3,000 BC and used in Roman times and in Ayurvedic medicine. It has diuretic properties and helps to dissolve uric acid, so it is good for gout.

It also helps insulin to work, so it good for diabetes. It is full of vitamins and minerals, including folic acid which is essential in pregnancy. Some of the minerals cause a well-known after-effect, giving a characteristic smell to the urine!

I really think eating seasonally adds to the pleasure of food, because it tastes better fresh. It has the added benefit of being more ecologically sustainable, and therefore of course cheap.

Somehow, the food fits better with the seasons too – all the lovely light, green things that you can start eating now when you’re fed up with the winter dark; the sunny red peppers and tomatoes you can eat in the summer; the fungi, nuts and fruits of autumn; the warming roots and stews of the winter.

Looking forward to the asparagus season is part of the fun. I have just had my first taste of the year, so spring is here.

Of course, I eat imported things that you can’t grow here, and many of these have become traditional parts of our diet – oranges, lemons and pineapples, cocoa, tea, coffee and many of the spices. I’m old enough to remember the re-appearance of the banana after the war!

But the mass growing and importing of things we can grow, but want to eat out of season, is not really good for flavour, or for the countries where they grow them, where they often can’t grow the food they need to feed themselves nutritiously, and use up precious water resources growing out-of-season vegetables for us.

I hope we have some decent weather in May to rescue our farms and let our fruit trees set a good crop. We may not still be dependent on our local environment for our food, but what happens to our growers still affects us and our countryside.

Here’s a seasonal poem – at least I hope so!

Hawthorn

Born in May, I have hawthorn for my tree.
Maidenhead and bridehead, smelling of lust
Pillowed white as a morning feather-bed
Running like sweet cream over the hedges
Fresh as snow, then gone to brown and sadness.
Birth and chastity in one, like the moon,
She became Mary’s flower, virgin mother,
Not welcome in the stony English church.
She is at home everywhere, motorway sides
And mountain sides, looping in bee-lines
Or standing alone at the crossroads. She
Was not the cross but was the crown of thorns
And Joseph took her as a staff, walking
Over the seas to Glastonbury, where
He rooted her, and she bursts into blossom
Coming each year in the thorny winter.
Her hedges snaked across the English green
Stealing the common from the goose, but she
Gave back her food to bees and then to thrushes.
First of the year, the green leaves break coldly
In February, when the chaffinch starts to sing
Bread and cheese for hungry children, tasting
Of spring and waking your secret longing.
Later red fruits, tiny apples never fail
Pick them like sweets or watch the redwings come.
Every year I wait for her sweet love smell
And endure the winter thorns, sharp as death.


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