WHAT'S IN SEASON?
French Beans, Aubergines, Runner Beans, Broccoli, Cobnuts, Courgettes, Fennel, Radishes, Shallots, Leeks, Wild Mushrooms, Sweetcorn, Tomatoes, Apples, Blackberries, Pears, Plums
WHAT DO WE NEED TO KNOW?
August - usually one of the best months of the year as harvest approaches, although this year is somewhat dismal coming off the wettest June and July on record. Usually a month we take time out to relax, many of us going on summer holidays, August marks the start of the harvest frenzy for farmers.
Much of the crop harvested in August is not anything we can directly eat or call seasonal - wheat, barley and oats are hugely important in our diets as cereal, but since they store well and are commonly processed we don't really think of them as seasonal produce.
Besides this however, there is an immense amount of fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables available in August; it is one of the most bountiful times of the year. Crops that need more heat to grow and ripen, like courgettes, tomatoes and aubergines are starting to ripen, and the collection of British fruit is expanded by the addition of pears, blackberries and plums.
You might not think French beans are seasonal, since once again they are available all year round - but these are often from Kenya, ready topped and tailed and packed in a controlled atmosphere packet - ready to pop in the pan. Nice and convenient, but how much goodness and freshness do you think is left in something that was picked a week ago and flown over 4,000 miles to the supermarket shelf?
British grown French beans are in season starting from late July/early August. An incredibly easy plant to grow, it will crop for months on end and is highly recommended to grow your own. Our climate has only recently become warm enough in the summer for French beans to easily grow; our history has more significance for runner beans and broad beans.
They are easy to cook and as many beans, should be lightly boiled or steamed. They can also then be gently sautéed in garlic and butter, or even gently sautéed to mix with pasta.
Aubergines are somewhat curiosity; while they grow in our climate (usually under glass), they prefer to be in a warmer and more humid climate. They are much more popular in Mediterranean countries and form the basis of many dishes such as pasta or moussaka.
Related to potatoes and tomatoes, the aubergine was initially greeted with suspicion when it arrived in Europe, as did potatoes and tomatoes as members of the nightshade family. Originally it was called the eggplant for its young immature white fruits were initially grown for decoration.
Aubergines only have a short season in Britain, requiring the heat of the heart of summer to grow outside. Aubergines grown in the greenhouse, sadly, can taste a little bland. Coming to the kitcken the same time as tomatoes and courgettes, they accompany each other into some fine dishes, such as ratatouille.
August is a little early for runner beans, but they will arrive now if you're lucky. Runner beans can vary greatly in taste - if you're lucky, they can be incredibly tasty, tender and a lovely side-dish, if you're not lucky they can be stringy, tough and bitter. This is down to a mix of the variety, and how long the beans are left on the plant. If you want to guarantee young, tender beans - pick early and often, and they can be topped, tailed, sliced and lightly boiled. If the pods are left on too long, the beans will grow larger and you can harvest the kidney beans instead if you wish.
Named runner beans for their tendency to climb, they were originally grown for decoration. As with many other beans and peas, the sugars in runner beans convert to starches soon after picking, so it's best to cook them as soon as possible after picking them. If they are constantly picked and the plants not allowed to grow the pods too long, they will continue producing until the first frosts.
Most broccoli we see in this country is actually called calabrese, after the Italian region from where it comes, Calabria. In Britain, it is seasonal in summer and autumn, although is often overshadowed by other varieties such as purple sprouting broccoli or romanesco.
Broccoli is an important vegetable nutritionally - sometimes called a superfood, it's high in antioxidants and other anti-cancer compounds. However, broccoli is traditionally overcooked in England, and all the goodness boiled out of it. Broccoli should be lightly boiled or steamed and served while it still has some of its crispness for it will still contain much of the goodness.
The florets are the best parts to cook; they are actually unopened flower buds, although the rest of the plant can be eaten too; the leaves can be steamed like greens, and the thick stalks chopped up and steamed, or added to a vegetable stock.
You may have never heard of cobnuts but you've probably eaten one. Otherwise known as filberts, cobnuts are cultivated hazelnuts, and are mainly grown in Kent. They have a short season, starting in the middle of August, on until October. They are not particularly common, and production has declined, because the orchards are particularly labour intensive to maintain, although in recent years there has been a renewed interest.
So those dried hazelnuts I eat in the nut mix at Christmas are cobnuts? No, actually, cobnuts are termed as such when they are harvested, and are eaten fresh, and as such have a crunchy texture and milky flavor.
Courgettes are the little sister of marrows; in essence the same plant (and you can grow marrows by allowing courgettes to over-mature), they haven't been grown in England as long as marrows. Marrows are often grown for size in competitions but unfortunately at this point have little taste.
Courgettes were first eaten and used by the Italians, who gave them their other common name, zucchini. They grow well in England, with their season peaking in August with its (usually) hot temperatures. On hot summer days, given plenty of water, courgettes can double in size, growing up to 3 to 4 inches in a day. If they are continually harvested and not allowed to run to marrows, they will provide courgettes for several months.
Extremely versatile in the kitchen, courgettes can be used in ratatouille, steamed, or sautéed gently in olive oil, but to name a few uses. The flowers can also be battered, deep fried and eaten.
Yet another import from a warmer country, Italy, it's only with the heat of the British summer that fennel will properly mature, but only if it doesn't get too much heat. The Italian fennel season is slightly earlier than the British one, ending in June/July, just as the British one starts.
The fronds and stalks of fennel are good for using in stock, especially for fish, and the bulb itself (a tight mass of overwrapping leaf stems) is particularly versatile. It can be sliced and eaten raw as part of a salad, or it can be part grilled if cut more thickly. Another use is to blanch it for a few minutes then roast it.
Tomatoes, sweetcorn, Blackberries, elderberries, plums, greengages, wild mushrooms, raspberries.