Not A Fig

One of the best things about growing your own food (or rather, working somewhere where someone does it for you) is that you get to use parts of the plants that, as a consumer, you wouldn’t even see. Pinched-out broad bean tops make a fine salad; artichoke leaves can be infused into cynar; rosemary flowers have a vagrant fragrance, more delicate by far than the bruising aromatics of the leaves. The basic rule, which seems very obvious once you realise it, is that all or most of the plant carries flavour. We usually use just the fruit, or the leaf, or the root, but the rest is full of untapped potential.

 

Of course, we have to exercise some restraint in this. Broad bean flowers are very good, but if you use them all you won’t get any broad beans – a bit of a waste of a plant. Leaves are less finite, but strip too many off and your tree will die. Luckily, in most cases you only need a few to bring a strong flavour to your recipe – in this case, your ice-cream. The leaves of fruit trees or bushes lend themselves very well to this. The bursting fragrance of fresh fruit is beautiful in a water- or buttermilk-ice, but the added acidity and liquid can be difficult to handle in a proper creamy ice-cream; the leaves give a lot of the former with none of the latter. You just need to plan a little in advance.

 

Although a lot of recipes for fig leaf ice-cream cook the leaves, I prefer not to. Broadly speaking, leaves of all kinds contain two strands of flavour. There are the oils and aromas particular to the plant itself, redolent of mintiness or blackcurrantness or whatever; then there is a more generic leafiness or grassiness, common to most greenery, which is in fact a defence mechanism against violence, and is brought out by physical insult or by heat. Sometimes, as in a chlorophyllic chimmichurri, you want this latter quality, which is why you smash the leaves in mortar or in magimix; more often, you don’t. In these cases, careful chopping or cold maceration are the way to go.

 

FIG LEAF ICE-CREAM

You’ll need, obviously, some fig leaves. We have a tree growing against the wall of the cafe, which is handy. Without this luxury, you’ll have to hunt one down. There’re a couple in the ground of Canterbury Cathedral, and I’m reliably informed there’s one in Vauxhall Park. Just don’t take too many.

300ml full-fat milk

4-5 fig leaves

300ml double cream

200g caster sugar

8 egg yolks

a pinch of salt

Scrunch or slap the leaves lightly, so they smell strongly of figs; put them in the milk and leave for two or three days, then squeeze them out and discard them. Add the milk to the cream in a saucepan.

Whisk together the sugar, yolks and salt (preferably in a free-standing mixer; it takes ages) until really fluffy and pale. A sort of wan lemon should be your guide, but it obviously depends on the eggs.

Meanwhile, scald the milk mix, and when the eggs are right, pour the hot liquid over them, still whisking, and then pour the lot back into the pan.

Heat very gently, stirring the whole time, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of whatever utensil you are using. If you overcook it, it will scramble, and you’ll have to start the whole three-day process all over again.

Decant into a container and cool completely, preferably overnight in the fridge, then churn in your ice-cream machine or whatever charmingly old-fashioned arrangement you have. Eat it now as a soft-serve or freeze overnight for a more traditional scoop. Some little biscuits would not go amiss.

Angel’s Kiss

In Oliver Rowe’s new and rather lovely work, a photo-less cookbook-diary-memoir called Food For All Seasons, which details the sometimes extreme locavorism that drives his cooking, he talks of the turn of the seasons as a sort of relentless force which moves entirely as it pleases; not a peaceful, steady wheel but a rollercoaster which gathers or loses speed and momentum according to the time of the year, the weather, and so on. The seasons, as he describes them, are a hard taskmaster, demanding constant vigilance and thorough organisation in order to get the most out of their bounty.They are now approaching full speed, as the year rolls into full summer and every week, it seems, brings a new crop; the other day, having just got used to the constant rain and chilly evenings, I was shocked when our grower brought up the first of the cucumbers. Spiny pickling varieties, some a dark alligator green and some a highlighter-yellow, I wasn’t, to be perfectly honest, quite ready for them; luckily, the limited success of my miso project meant I had a spare crock, and in they went, with some wet garlic, fresh bay and fennel fronds for company. It’s so hot at the moment that they are nearly ready, three days later – everything moves faster in the summer, which is unfortunate, given that it is too hot in the kitchen to move above an amble.

With a combination of this and a slight change in technique, our pickled turnips are ready overnight, the mixed pickle only slightly longer. Ol’ Yeasty belches and swells swampily, and his doughy offspring rise like a dream. The downside is that experiments which could otherwise have been left happily to themselves for days on end require constant vigilance; if they don’t end up victims of their own bubbly tumescence, the fruit flies will probably get them. I understand why they target the rye sourdough, which is after all pretty much pure digestible food, but their particular love for drowning themselves in anything vinegary is baffling, and has led to the death of a poorly-wrapped maceration of cherries; luckily it also makes it easy to set traps for them. It’s lucky, then, that the concoctions of sugared wine and crushed fruit on the shelf above the bar are sealed in Kilner jars and well-wrapped in clingfilm; they would otherwise shortly become infested with tiny corpses.

Containing, variously, green walnuts, black cherries, and squished gooseberries, these infusions will become what the French, rather lovelily, call ‘window wines’, as they sit on a bright windowsill to mature in the sun, which streaks through them and turns shades of orange, green, and scarlet. Even if they taste disgusting, which seems rather unlikely, it would be worth making them just for this. I have, as is often the case, Diana Henry to thank for introducing me to these, which I have been meaning to make for ages. It’s just so hard not to eat cherries, especially when you are squashing the stones out of them and the juice splatters all over your hands and face. The cherry and the gooseberry should both be ready in a day or two, but the walnut, made, like Opies’ finest pickles, from the soft buds before they develop shells, is supposed to take two months. This is frustrating, but I suspect its taste – which I imagine is dark, spiced and woody – will sit better in the dark end of the year. Summer, on the other hand, was made for drinking cherry wine, in little glass beakers as the sun goes down across the hedgerows and the hills and the backs of the hot-bricked houses, as the first blue stars emerge.

Icumen In


The weather seems to have finally caught up with the calendar, having sensibly skipped April in favour of a rerun of February; the skies are a bright, clear blue, small birds sing in the hedges, hares roam the fields, and greengrocers start to stock local produce other than various and manifold forms of cabbage. God, in short, is in his heaven, and all is right with the world; it is time to sit down and write about asparagus.

Asparagus is green, and while it was once the thing to cook it in bunches to a muted pliability, you are now as likely to find it fried, grilled, or otherwise blackened, wrinkled and intense; that’s all I have to say about asparagus, delicious though it is. I like to serve it with feta blitzed with salted lemon until it goes grainy, separates, and then comes back together into a thick cream, though you might not. If there is any overlap between the seasons (which seem to be longer, for wholesale purposes, than the ones stated in magazines and shops), then a blood orange hollandaise can be a lovely thing. So much for asparagus. There is more to the endless somersault of the seasons than green vegetables.

I made the most of one of the hotter days of the year thus far by cooking four halved pigs’ heads, filling the kitchen with a thick, fatty steam for around five hours, extended to six while I picked the nuggets of meat from the skulls and reduced the resulting liquor, which could probably, if the smell didn’t bother you, be used as hair product, though not on hotter days. As an added bonus, the kitchen temperature (hovering around 20°C) and humidity seems to be ideal for fermentation of various kinds – my honey and rosemary wine is bubbling away merrily, and the usual array of pickles are all doing what they do at a steady pace; summer will soon be here, and with it the heaps of courgettes, tomatoes, herbs, beans and flowers, all needing preserving in their various ways. It’s good to get the practice in now.

If you get bored of pickling things, and bored of plain-ish asparagus, and if the weather drops a bit, a risotto primavera is a nice thing to make; if you get bored of risotto rice, the same thing done with buckwheat grains, quick to cook, nutty and wholesome, can be very good. As ever with spring cooking, lemon is your friend. A recipe? This is no time of year for recipes. You just take what looks good and you cook it, to make it the best it can be; recipes are for the darkening tail of the year. Besides, any recipe would be redundant soon. The broad beans and the peas, the radishes, the lettuces and the soft herbs are filling the air with the bright promise of a late English spring.

Pigs and Peas

Pity the British food writer. A lovely last week of May, and all those pieces you’ve planned, on podding peas in the evening sun, the joys of stone fruit and cucumber and gin – the rich larder of an imagined English summer – are looking great. You can almost smell the lemonade. Then June hits, and it’s all autumnal gusts of sideways rain. Such is the problem of seasonality in a country where the weather barely pays lip service to the time of year.

Ah well. The whole point of summer produce is that you barely need to cook it anyway. You weren’t actually going to follow that clafoutis recipe, were you? Just eat the cherries out of the bag on the way home, like a normal person. When the late summer courgette glut hits, you might be glad of a few extra ideas (make chutney, leave it to ‘mature’ in the cupboard/shelf/oubliette) but for now (the imagined now, that is, where the weather’s really nice) it’s best to enjoy things as fresh as can be.

None if this helps with the need for early-summer warmers, though. Here, as so often, I suggest ham is the answer. Some conjunction of pea and pig is always appropriate, from London Particular to lovely little-gem-and-herb heavy salads, and this is a great way of hedging your bets. So.

BASIC HAM ADVICE

Ham hocks (gammon hock, bacon knuckle – same thing) are a perfect marriage of hard-working, pullable meat with gelatin-heavy bone and wibbly bits. Butchers usually have them. Get 1 or more if you’ve got a big enough pot.

Onions

Carrots

Leeks

Celery

Garlic, juniper, thyme, whatever

Put everything in a pot, cover with water, and bring to a lively simmer. Keep there for a good two hours, until you can easily pull out the main bone of the hock.

Fish out the ham(s) and leave to cool a bit before shredding, discarding bone, skin, and any wibbly bits that haven’t broken down. 

Strain the stock, which is now worth its weight in gold. The carrots will be deliciously hammy, the rest of the vegetables pretty insipid. Discard those too.

There you are! If the weather’s gone crap, you can cook split peas in the stock, add some shredded ham (maybe fried crispy) and eat with rye bread; glorious sunshine might warrant the aforementioned salad, scattered with freshly prodded peas, chervil and chives, and maybe a fresh curd cheese; somewhere in the middle (most likely, I suppose) and you could braise the lettuce and peas in your ham stock, enriching the broth with a good dollop of aïoli. If you want to just eat the warm ham with your fingers, slurping down jugfuls of broth, though, that’s fine by me.