The game is over. Country-dwellers will not mourn the loss from their plates, they are attuned to the gentle music of the seasons’ rhythms, the onward march of nature and March’s early, hesitant notes of spring. If city dwellers realized that cutting country corners involves, at the season’s end, untrained surgery, nipping and tugging out game birds breasts, discarding legs and wings to avoid the misery of flying feathers and torn skin, and wrenching out clusters of guts high with hanging, they’d doubtless be shocked. But that is the way with farmers whose braces of birds have already graced the table to the point at which a delicacy has lost its cache and the deep-freeze is still stocked with a flock. The skinless breast which I have abjured for ever as the root of much lazy cooking evil is upon us.
It’s either too late or too early in March. Once the game has gone, along with the worst of the marrow-chill that sends us to suet and sloe gin, it is too early for Spring lamb, crab or the first sea trout thrashing up-river, and we are tired of the roots and stews and farinaceous things that have kept us going for months.
Traditionally April is the time to un-clad the liver of all the fatty excesses of the winter. I hesitate to use the word de-tox because the body doesn’t work like that, it does it whether we fast or feast. But what our bodies do seem to tell us is to lighten up, even the thought of spring and sunshine seems to re-enforce what nature is already out and about doing. Artichokes and spinach, nettles and watercress, baby turnips, spring greens, rhubarb; later, in April and May, asparagus and wild garlic.
Iron in the soul. That’s what we need. Spring cleaning is not just of the household variety, nettles cleanse and purify the blood and have a stimulating effect upon the kidneys. They are a powerful diuretic and help to lower blood pressure. Chock full of vitamins and minerals like iron, magnesium, calcium and silica, they are a tonic at that time of year when we feel at our most sluggish and wintered out.
I would never advocate the wheatgrass school of deprivation through diet, the mantra of eating what is good for you and never mind the taste, quite the opposite. Taste comes above all else. The slurring of the seasons and the supermarkets’ insistence of giving us all things at all times, however, has served to deflect us from listening to what our bodies need and want to eat or the knowledge of what is best when.
Once the greening of spring comes, we can chop bundles of peppery watercress, high in vitamins C, B6 and K into smoked haddock tarts and lash on a little parmesan or pecorino. We can pick silken blades of wild garlic to add raw and chopped to salads or wilt into the earliest new potatoes cooked en papillote with olive oil or butter in the oven. Unlike common garlic, this wild cousin doesn’t leave you breathing fumes, it is odourless, has 4 ½ times more sulphur compounds than the common variety, helps regulate cholesterol and is higher in magnesium and iron too.
I am still on a citrus kick at this time of year. The primary sunshine colours must surely be a part of the attraction. You may find it difficult to find the delectable Tarrocco oranges that grow in the volcanic earth below Mount Etna and have flesh striated like a sunset. Unfortunately blood oranges are far better marketed and more prolifically grown despite their less full, sharp taste. But Waitrose stock Tarroccos as do my favourite deli Murray’s in Clevedon, so you can always go on a mission if you want to try them. Sliced thinly with only their own juice squeezed over them and served with a rich home made caramel ice cream, you have a more modern take on that old tart classic oranges in caramel syrup. And it’s time for home made lemon curd tart which is less ubiquitous than the classic tarte au citron, but, to my mind, every bit as divine. A curd takes 10 minutes to make and is less rich as there is no cream in it.
Here’s my way to a curd-without-curdle that will leave every taste bud pencil-sharp. This quantity will make enough luscious lemon ointment to fill a 24 cm / 9½ inch tart tin. Make the pastry first by rubbing 90g cold cubed butter into 180g flour sifted with a heaped tablespoon of unrefined icing sugar.
Bind with an egg yolk until it coheres, you may need a little iced water too, place the ball on a piece of clingfilm, bash it flat with the flat of your hand, cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Roll out on a floured surface and line the tin then bake blind for 20 minutes at 180°C. Remove the baking beans, prick with a fork and finish cooking for around 10 minutes or until the edges have turned biscuit coloured. Place on a rack to cool.
Meanwhile, break 8 organic eggs into a large bowl. Add the zest and juice of 6 organic lemons and 180g vanilla caster sugar and whisk together.
Melt 60g unsalted butter over a medium heat in a wide-bottomed pan so you have a large surface area and the moment the butter has completely melted pour in the mixture and whisk until it thickens. So quick you won’t believe it, anywhere between 2-5 minutes depending on the heat.
Remove from the heat immediately and scrape into a bowl to cool, over ice if you can be bothered. Give an occasional stir to prevent a skin forming.
Scrape warm into the tart case and chill in the fridge.
I prefer to serve the tart chilled, but you may like it warm. Your call. Likewise with the cream or crème fraiche, but I find the very zesty, zingy freshness is enough and more without. A veritable taste of sunshine.