In this series, Sybil Kapoor explores how a sense of seasonality in your cooking can be enhanced through colour, forms, textures and aromas, which together create an emotional resonance, evoking a time and place
There is a sense of unreality about August. London empties out for the summer holidays. The light subtly changes, streets turn soft and golden and the parks deepen into the darkest green. Shadows lengthen on the hot pavements and there is a hint of autumn in the early morning air.
No one can focus on work at this time of year. Instead everyone is thinking about summer things, such as holidays, barbecues, picnics and allotments. There are blackberries to pick, chutneys to make and wonderful rambling walks to take on warm summer evenings.
Those whose holidays lie ahead dream of all they might do, such as eating kippers for breakfast on the Norfolk coast or buying sweet juicy peaches in some bustling continental market. Those who have returned to work dally with thoughts of leading a different life. It feels as though anything is possible.
How can you capture such emotions and experiences in your cooking? One way is to change the way you cook and serve dishes. Adding a grilled element to your meals, for example, instantly evokes summer holidays, regardless of whether you use charcoal or a cast iron griddle pan. Lightly chargrilled courgettes, for instance, add a smoky summery note to a salad of feta, toasted pine nuts, mint and spring onions.
Deep blue sky
Similarly, eating a dish of nectarine halves, drizzled with a little honey and barbecued until warm and caramelised immediately conjures up swifts swooping in a deep blue sky, especially if served with a dollop of sweetened fromage frais.
Further seasonal resonances can be added by subtly repeating evocative ingredients through the meal. Plump wood pigeon breasts, for example, are delicious marinated in olive oil with thyme, marjoram, shallot, honey and a tiny dash of wine before they’re barbecued. The grilled pigeon can then be served with a salad of romaine lettuce hearts, white and green beans, all tossed in a thyme, marjoram and shallot vinaigrette.
Pickling and preserving seasonal ingredients is a brilliant way of capturing the mood of August. Eating a sticky homemade plum or damson relish with barbecued duck, for example, or a piquant tomato chutney in a picnic cheese sandwich will instantly evoke memories.
Making lots of preserves has the added benefit of allowing you to introduce that pleasing sense of wistfulness to meals later in the year. Who cannot recall the scratch of brambles on bare limbs when spreading some blackberry jam on warm buttered scones in October? Who does not long for the idyllic hot summer days when drizzling some intensely flavoured homemade raspberry syrup over a steamed lemon pudding in November?
An attractive tight manner
Another way to create a sense of time and place in cooking is to change how you serve your food according to the season. If the weather is hot in August, try reducing the amount you serve and arranging it in an attractive tight manner. The Japanese maintain that in the heat of summer this is far more appetising than offering larger informal arrangements.
A tomato salad might be a few translucent slices of the finest tomatoes you can find, neatly arranged with a drizzle of basil oil to create an exquisite tension of form and colour on the plate.
This idea can even be applied to casually served food, such as homemade veal burgers. Make smaller, flatter patties, flecked with thyme, chilli, lime zest and sautéed shallot and slip into smaller buns with mayonnaise, a slice of tomato, a small lettuce leaf and chive flowers. It’s surprising how these will tempt jaded appetites, especially if accompanied by a few crisps and pickles.
Similarly, grilled corn-fed chicken might be served with just a spoonful of sliced, sautéed ceps, finished with wine and cream, and flecked with parsley and lemon zest.
In Britain, brightly-coloured food suggests holidays, regardless of whether it is a scattering of sliced red chilli on pale yellow sweetcorn and lime soup or the deep pink and purple streak of raspberries and blackberries within a hazelnut meringue roulade. We eschew soft, subtle colour combinations until we start to sense autumn towards the end of the month.
Finally, the dreamy nature of August days can be amplified by serving recipes that are commonly associated with garden gluts: simple, al fresco lunches where you use lots of crusty French bread to sop up an old fashioned ratatouille or green beans, cooked Middle Eastern style.
No August Sunday lunch is complete without a luscious fruit pudding such as plum tart and greengage cobbler. Few can resist such fragrant dishes—especially when accompanied by clotted cream. Work feels a million miles away.