When does spring actually start?? This last week I have been suffering from what can only be described as weather bipolarism. There is a euphoric feeling when the sun warms your face for the first time in months – it sparks insatiable optimism. Green shoots have started appearing and life in our poly-tunnel is positively sweaty, but this morning dreams of spring have been violently dismissed by sharp overnight frost and a dusting of snow. Spring is a difficult time for chefs and growers. Daylight hours have increased and it’s great that things are growing again, but it’s frustrating that so little is actually ready to eat. We’ll have to be patient and continue to prepare for sowing outside at the end of March.
The tomato seeds we planted three weeks ago are now growing fast. I can’t wait to have a tunnel full of multi-coloured heirloom tomatoes – it will surely be a highlight of the summer. This week we also planted about 3000 alpine strawberry seeds. TB made a mistake when ordering and we got twice as many as we expected, but, hey, can you have too many alpine strawberries??
One thing that does grow in March is foraged leaves and flowers. I see these as a gift from mother nature to keep us going while we wait for our crops to harvest. We have wild garlic, primroses and wood sorrel on the menu this week. I also managed to find some scraggly shoots of woodruff that had come through the winter. Back in the kitchen we now have them in an ice-cream which is served on the tasting menu.
One foraging trip this week took us to the coast in a search for edible seaweeds. We found kelp, egg wrack and sea lettuce in good quantities. I have cooked with seaweeds for a year now and find dried kelp (kombu) very useful for stocks and seasonings. It allows us to get a desired flavour using minimal salt and I find having some dishes seasoned in this way helps a tasting menu to flow from dish to dish.
The day at the beach was fun, not only a satisfying harvest but a good laugh too. On our way back to the car, laden down with heavy bags of seaweed we stumbled across a huge patch of gorse flowers. We’ve talked about making alcohols from these prickly fellows for a while now, so couldn’t resist the opportunity to line our pockets with the golden flowers. It takes quite a while to pick an amount worth having and for me it came to a traumatic end when I fell head first down into a thick bush and became a giant gorse pin cushion! OUCH! It brought back painful memories of a childhood holiday in Gran Canaria when I had sat on a cactus and suffered a similar fate – though then with the added embarrassment of my parents removing the cactus spines from my bare bottom at the road side… This time, thankfully, I was able to lick my own wounds over a pint in a local pub before the drive back to Oldstead.
We announced some good news this week. My friend and very talented chef, Kenny Atkinson will be cooking a special dinner with us at The Black Swan on June 26th. Tables are selling fast so if you fancy coming, get in there soon! I will be cooking at Kenny’s restaurant, House of Tides, in Newcastle as a return fixture later in the year. I used to watch Kenny flying the flag for the North East on Great British Menu and he has been a hero of mine ever since. By June we should have some great produce available to use and the event promises to be a proper celebration of food in our region.