At a glance?
Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Garlic, Spring Onions, Seakale, Radishes, Sorrel Chicory, Endive, Leeks
What more do we need to know?
With many of the winter brassicas finally finishing, March is a little thin on the ground for seasonal produce. Many of the winter favourites such as sprouts, leeks and parsnips are on their way out (although you'd never know it since Leeks and Parsnips are in stores all year round), to be replaced by incoming early crops. Many of the incoming crops are fast growing, early catch crops, which can be turned around quickly before something more permanent goes in the ground.
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.
Starting their long season in March, spring onions bring a fresh taste to the table in a pretty dull time of year for vegetables. Closely related to their larger culinary cousins, spring onions, also called scallions, are usually immature onions, harvested around eight weeks after planting and eaten fresh instead of being dried. While much of the time spring onions are imported from various countries, through successional sowing, spring onions can be around from spring to the first autumn frosts.
While we typically eat spring onions raw to vary an otherwise potentially plain winter salad, they are often used for cooking, which is very common in Asian cuisine. With a relatively mild taste compared to their larger cousins, spring onion can impart a more delicate taste to dishes when cooked.
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.
Seakale is one of a very short list of vegetables truly native to the British Isles (watercress and parsnip being the other main two), with most other vegetables thought to be native to our country having been imported over the years and adapted to suit our climate.
Not at all related to kale, seakale grows wild on sand and shingle beaches, and is not particularly reliable to depend on for sustenance! It's leaves and stalks were originally eaten like cabbage, but the best bit is the tender stalks that develop below ground, self-blanching themselves. These are not dissimilar in taste to asparagus albeit a little sweeter and more juicy, and are cooked and eaten in a similar way.
Due to its rarity, seakale is hard to come by. Intensive harvesting in the 19th century greatly depleted wild stocks, and it is now illegal to harvest seakale in the wild. It is easy enough to grow it yourself, and is similar to growing rhubarb; the crowns of the plant are exposed to frost then forced under cover in a darkened shed or terracotta pots. Both methods are time-consuming and expensive, making seakale a rare seasonal delicacy.
Chicory and Endive
Chicory and endive are quite closely related and are similar in use, so we will deal with them at the same time. They can both be eaten all year round, but help give a more varied platter in the heart of winter. Chicory is particularly bitter, which may not be to everyones taste; this is eased by cooking.
There are several different subtypes to these vegetables; curly endive is quite popular in England, looking more like lettuce with a mass of leaves. Radicchio is another popular type, brought into the mainstream by much gastronomic culinary use in the 1980s and 1990s.
The varieties that are more commonly known as chicory are the header sugarloaf variety, and the "witloof" forced variety, which are forced in darkness in a similar method to rhubarb and seakale. This forcing gives them a pale colour (almost white), and to make them less bitter. Radicchio can be forced in a similar manner, to give a brighter, red colour rather than the usual brownness.
Forced rhubarb is one of the few fruits that is still grown seasonally, and in the way it was grown many year ago. Forcing rhubarb is an odd process, which requires subjecting the plant to both darkness and heat; searching for light causes the tender shoots to grow rapidly. Rhubarb is grown in one of the strangest conditions; it is grown in low-height long sheds, in total darkness, with teams of people harvesting the rhubarb by hand, by candlelight. The result is the almost viciously pink shoots, providing probably the only colour excitement of the month.
The British rhubarb industry is located in a tiny area of West Yorkshire, called the "Wakefield Triangle". A number of factors caused the industry to concentrate here; favourable weather, heavy soils, good availability of coal for heat, and good transport infrastructure all contribute. The cold weather in autumn chills the roots of the rhubarb, so they can be dug up in mid-November and replanted into the sheds, ready for forcing.
In the middle of the last century, the rhubarb industry was of huge importance; a dedicated "rhubarb express" train carried hundreds of tones of rhubarb down to the south of the country. Today, the industry is much smaller; it has no trains of its own. Rhubarb isn't as popular as it once was, due to the ready availability of exotic fruit, and the expense of the labour-intensive growing and harvesting process. This is a shame; many recipes exist, such as Rhubarb Fool or Rhubarb Crumble which are simply delicious. A much overlooked fruit, rhubarb shouldn't be passed upon, particularly not tender forced rhubarb.
A staple ingredient of many stews and soups in the winter, leeks are in season from August to March but at their best in the depth of winter, when few other vegetables are fresh in season. They were made popular by the Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks, who all helped spread leeks from their native Central Asia across Europe.
Whilst leeks are fairly limited in their uses, they are superb for the few they are good for. A true gourmet vegetable, it has a subtle flavour that its relatives such as onion and garlic long for, making it a delicious meal in its own right, steamed, sauted or grilled. It is good for flavouring soups and stocks, and furthermore, easy to grow, making light work of surviving cold, wet conditions that kill off other plants.
The white part of leeks is coloured this way by pulling up soil around the plant, which blanches the stems. This is the part of the plant that is typically eaten as a meal, although the green leaves can be used for flavouring stocks.
Leeks are a great addition to the diet; they have many of the dietary benefits of onions, including reducing cholesterol and helping combat the offset of diabetic heart disease, and also to help lower blood pressure. Allium vegetables have also been shown to reduce the risk of prostate and colon cancer if taken as little as two to three times a week.