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
As all country dwellers know, March is a tough month, often dominated by biting raw winds and muddy lanes, despite the purple-budded woods and almond-scented blackthorn. Seeds may be sown, but it takes time for the soil to warm, even when tucked under horticultural fleece. As a result, British cooks need greater creativity than usual to evoke a sense of spring in their food as they have to rely on home-grown winter produce for the bulk of their ingredients.
The key, as always, is to consider your weekly produce, such as carrots, onions and potatoes, and then find ways to make them taste of spring. Perhaps the easiest option is to include a few ingredients that are coming in and going out of season.
Plump, freshly harvested farmed mussels, for instance, are good in March, but will disappear in April. By serving a bowl of fragrant potato, parsley and mussel chowder on a wild March day, you inevitably create a sense of time and place. It will imbue the eater with a cosy feeling, partly because such dishes won’t be eaten again until the cold winter months, and partly because the scent of mussels evokes the windswept sea and sparkling rock pools.
The promise of spring
Foods coming into season, such as wild garlic, morels and mackerel also carry the promise of spring. You only need to add a few sautéed morels or some wilted wild garlic leaves to a cream, white wine and shallot pasta sauce to conjure up that sense of excitement that comes with the sight of wild daffodils and blue skies.
The next step is to ensure that your recipes encompass the tastes and flavours (smells) that represent March to most Britons. In other words, sharp, sour and salty tastes mixed with herbal, citrus, ozone and smoky flavours. Sniff the air when out walking and depending on where you are, you might catch the sharp, herbal smell of new undergrowth mixed with wood smoke or a sea breeze.
A woodland walk might be translated into a delicious dish of chicken, morels and chantenay carrots, simmered in cream, wine and stock and flavoured with tarragon and lemon zest. A coastal stroll might be expressed by some lightly salted grilled mackerel, seasoned by lemon and accompanied by sweet beetroot dressed in a fiery horseradish dressing.
Wobbly sweet-sour jellies
Traditionally, British cooks draw on citrus and tropical fruits in March to express fresh spring tastes and the promise of warmer climes. Wobbly sweet-sour jellies such as passion fruit or blood orange, for example, or tangy unctuous blood orange or passion fruit curd-filled cakes and roulades. Such tart fruits taste doubly exciting when combined with sugary, fragile meringues.
Texture should also be used to convey seasonality, especially if used in conjunction with evocative tastes and flavours. March is a transitional month when it comes to weather, in that it might be wet and icy on one day and warm and balmy on another. Thus texturally, cooks can draw on both soft and crisp winter textures and airy fragile summer textures. Buttery smoked mackerel and horseradish pate, for example, served on crisp melba toast is a perfect March dish, especially if accompanied by some semi-crunchy pickled cucumber.
Similarly, a winter staple such as bramley apples can be transformed into a spring dish if pureed and folded into whipped cream and whipped eggs, regardless of whether it’s a dish of fluffy apple snow or a chilled apple soufflé.
Vivid green garlic
Finally, there is presentation to be considered. I always associate March with the muted colours of rustic rough-glazed pottery, but it would be equally appropriate to use pretty bone china, depending on your mood and the weather. Add splashes of spring colour to your dishes, such as vivid green garlic leaves ripped and scattered over milky white homemade labneh served with toasted wedges of pita bread, or swirls of deep yellow passion fruit pulp drizzled over a dish of floating islands (poached meringue quenelles floating in a sea of custard).
Allow prettiness to reign when you arrange your food. Creamy carrot or watercress soups can be garnished with a swirl of crème fraîche and a few fresh herbs, and wintery stews can be transformed into dainty spring pies. Early primroses or violets can be sugared and slipped on to cakes, and chopped pistachios can be scattered over creamy puddings. April will be here before you know it.