AT A GLANCE
Morel Mushrooms, Potatoes, Spring Greens, Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Wild Garlic, Outdoor Rhubarb
WHAT MORE DO WE NEED TO KNOW?
While it starts of a bit thin on the ground, April soon kicks in with a vengeance, with possibly the best seasonal vegetable of all peeking out at the end of the month; Jersey Potatoes. No finer item comes out of English soil, and the fact that they're only available in England makes them all the more special.
Unlike the majority of mushrooms which have their season in the autumn at the tail end of the summer, Morel Mushrooms are available in the spring, from March to May. Another difference to most mushrooms is their structure, a thin and wrinkly cap, and short stems.
Due to their difficult cultivation and refusal to accept commercial attempts at farming, morel mushrooms carry a hefty price tag; they favour burnt ground, or sandy or chalky soil. If you can find them in the wild, they can be threaded onto a string and dried, and they keep very well, but like any mushroom hunting, be sure to take along an expert in mushroom hunting if you do not have the necessary expertise yourself.
Potatoes seasonal you say? But we eat potatoes all year round! While that's true, it's because we either import them from abroad, or use them from a stockpile of the previous seasons' crop, for potatoes store very well. Britain eat more potatoes than any other European country, even more than Ireland. While they're not generally seasonal, certain varieties are and should be experienced when in season for the best flavor.
For a vegetable so deeply ingrained in our diet, potatoes have not been with us for long, only coming over from South America in the sixteenth century. Like tomatoes (for they are closely related and can in fact be grafted with tomatoes), they were treated with immense distrust at first, and even when accepted, they first became a standby winter crop for when grain harvests failed. They had become a staple part of our diet by the 19th century, but even more so in Ireland, where each person ate up to 5 kilos of potatoes per head each day, which proved devastating when the Irish potato famine hit.
How are potatoes seasonal? There are three types; first earlies, second earlies and maincrop. Quicker maturing (and usually smaller) earlies are available usually from April onwards until July, while maincrop take until July onwards till November to mature. Jersey Royals are usually the first earlies to appear, in late April, helped by the warm Jersey climate and the nutrient rich seaweed fertilizer used in their growth. Many early varieties tend to be waxy, while later maincrop varieties are more floury and better for baking, mashing, roasting and chipping. Skins on maincrop potatoes are "set" which means they should be peeled off rather than scrubbed like earlies, although try not to peel off too much, for much of the goodness sits just beneath the skin.
Outdoor rhubarb starts hitting our shelves in April, around about the time forced rhubarb run out. Outdoor British rhubarb is not as delicate as its earlier cousin, but at a time when no other fresh seasonal fruit is available in the garden it comes in handy. While technically rhubarb is botanically classed as a vegetable since it is the stems that are eaten instead of a fruiting body, it is classified as a fruit for its primary usage, as a baked dessert.
Why is rhubarb the only fruit available now? The majority of fruit in the garden ripen in a response to heat, whereas rhubarb is light sensitive, and grows as a response to increasing hours of daylight. The crown of the plant is not affected by frost, and the plant is a perennial so re-crops every year. A rhubarb plant can take up a lot of space, but one plant is all that's needed for a regular sized family, for they crop heavily.
There are several different ways to use rhubarb, but the best by far is rhubarb crumble.
Once again, spring greens are available all year round, but once again, they should be treated as a seasonal specialty. They are one of the first green vegetables to crop in the natural British vegetable season, and as well as being tasty, are good for you, being high in Vitamins A, C and E, and potassium and especially iron. They are light and fresh compared to heavy winter cabbage we've become accustomed to over the previous few months, and only require a brief steaming to cook.
PURPLE SPROUTING BROCCOLI
Even the most ardent fan of cabbages and root vegetables tires of them eventually - and after several dark months of little choice, in March the purple sprouting broccoli is almost cause for celebration. It's very tough and hardy, and is therefore able to withstand the winter without trauma, and be ready and good to go in late February and March.
Because there are different types of broccoli and so many varieties, it's almost possible to eat broccoli in season all year round, from purple sprouting, to calabrese in the summer, and romanesco in late summer and autumn.
Purple sprouting broccoli is almost on a similar culinary and gourmet level to asparagus, with such a delicate flavor and texture and short season, but with a few differences; first of all, it is much easier to grow, and less preparation - you can even eat them raw off the plant. When cooking, it's best not to cook them for too long - brief steaming or blanching is the best way, because overcooking will quickly turn them soggy and sulphurous.
Related to the commercially grown garlic available most year round, wild garlic is commonly found in woodland, where it can cover large areas and develop and overpowering smell. It's actually pretty mild - as much so as commercial garlic. The young leaves can be eaten raw in salads, used as flavourings in soups and stews, or to wrap cheeses (and in fact flavor them). The bulbs can also be eaten later in the summer if desired.