1st June heralds the start of summer and fresh new season produce. It means a real shift in cooking too. During the long hungry gap, skills and innovation are needed to make the limited ingredients inviting. What a relief to be able to pluck something fresh from the garden and revel in just its perfect freshness and newness with minimal effort. Much of what I serve during the summer barely warrants a recipe.
Of course, there is nowhere to hide with this sort of food. Everyone who grows their own knows the incomparable flavour that comes, for example, from freshly dug potatoes compared to any you can buy. But not everyone has the space to grow their own food; and finding sources where you can buy freshly harvested produce can be just as challenging.
If you have very limited space, my top food growing priority would be herbs, even if it is just a few pots on a windowsill. Herbs are an essential seasoning; and the fresh growth immediately transforms a dish into a taste of summer. I have featured a different herb each month for those who want to grow their own.
My next priority for growing your own food in a limited space would be salad leaves. You can grow a mix of cut and come again leaves in a pot, but if you have room for a cold frame, you could become self-sufficient in salad for the whole year. Salad Leaves for All Seasons by Charles Dowding, the expert in no-dig gardening, is a fantastic book that will teach you all you need to know to achieve that self-sufficiently. Charles himself quickly realised that the only horticulture from which he could make a living from a small plot was salad leaves. He began by picking and delivering bags of fresh leaves to local restaurants.
Salad leaves are quick to grow and so some of the first of the new year’s planting to be ready for harvest. Radishes are similarly early to harvest, but despite their name, Spring Onions are a little later, and this year, a bit later than usual. Mine are just about ready to begin picking now (mid-June).
A food writer in our local paper alerted me to the fact that “Spring” onions are now sold in supermarkets all year round. The UK’s main commercial grower is in Worcestershire and can apparently supply them from March to November, but I noted that this week, in June, those in Waitrose came from Egypt. The switch in supply may well be owing to the previously documented trouble with trafficking and child labour for spring onion picking in Worcestershire. The year-round supply is down to their use as an ingredient in Far-eastern cookery.
However, as a traditional British salad ingredient, I would say that freshness is essential and urge you to grow your own. Following this year’s late frosts, which are expected to become a more recurrent consequence of climate change, I intend to try planting a “winter hardy” version of the popular White Lisbon variety for overwintering this year in the hope of achieving an earlier supply.
Back in March, Bee Wilson wrote about spring onions in the Financial Times. She included some lovely simple recipes from an Edna Lewis of the USA, including the following:
Take the freshest spring onions and lettuce, wash, and then dress with sugar, vinegar, and salt. This, Edna Lewis says, is the taste of her childhood. I tried it, using the best white wine vinegar to dissolve a pinch each of salt and sugar, no oil, and it was indeed delicious. I didn’t mention to my husband that I was trying a different dressing but observed that when I offered him the last of the salad, he carefully tipped the bowl to get the remaining dressing – a result!
The taste of your childhood salads may not be one you are eager to recreate, but if you look back far enough into our history you will find that British salads do have a creditable heritage and there are no end of unusual ingredients that could be included as I wrote here. So, whether you are looking for a main course perfect for lunch, a side salad, or something to refresh the palate between courses, the inspiration will start with your own fresh produce.