May eating pleasures
May 15th, 2012
Last year I wrote this article for Shropshire Life – The weather was rather warmer so I’m including it for nostalgic reasons.
For a cook, the arrival of summer is the foodie equivalent of shoving into storage your dark winter vestments and pulling out a trunk of brightly coloured cotton dresses, complete with little cardigans and slingbacks. Up until very recently I have been grateful for the warmth generated by stirring soups and slow-cooking casseroles. This style of cooking has been as essential as my woolly jumpers, but now I can’t wait to crunch on crisp shoots, taste some tang and be dazzled by fresh colour on my plate.
With bank holidays and long summer evening s stretching ahead perhaps like me you are already anticipating the arrival of family and friends from far flung towns and cities as surely as the arrival of goosegrass. Both guests and weed nestle under cover in relative dry and comfort while the rest of us slopped through mud and braved freezing winds for months. Then, when the bluebells rise up and the chestnut is in flower they appear and reappear throughout the summer.
Oh well. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to be here at this lovely time of year and I’m really very pleased to lay more places at the table. Better still, summer visitors provide the perfect excuse to plunder Shropshire’s larder and put together a picnic.
I missed out on the family pleasures of picnics as a child because my father so hated the necessary combination of sitting on the ground, eating with his fingers and encounters with insects. I tried to get myself invited on my next door neighbours’ many family outings but they got sick of me riding round their house on my bike early on Sunday mornings and told me to buzz off. Consequently I romanticised this form of outdoor eating so much I took myself off on solitary bike rides ending up perched by riverbanks accessorised by parasols and slim volumes of poetry, eating soft cheese and quaffing red wine ( actually Ribena) and being generally Edwardian.
For a more realistic eating experience I would recommend you keep your picnics simple and reduce to virtually nil the time you need spend clearing up as there is nothing romantic about sorting through greasy Tupperware. Also, unless you want to sit and behave much like an indulgent octopus for the entire meal, provide food which doesn’t need you to keep delving into the hamper for essential foodie extras for their pleasure.
My stock favourite is to cook up some local butchers’ sausages (Houghs in Stretton are very good as the selection from Wenlock Edge) ready butter and mustard some lengths of baton and let them dig in. The sausages keep warm over an hour’s journey when wrapped up in a thermal bag and are handy if you end up eating them in the car watching the windows steam up as we did last time we went to Powis Castle. I also recommend you take some hot soup together with disposable insulated cups. Pea and lemongrass is easy, everyone likes it and it is a very pretty colour.
If you are lucky enough to actually sit sur l’herb a plateful of coronation chicken using 1952 recipe with only a touch of 21st century hits the spot. (image) Wipe your plate with some torn up crusty bread and throw in some local cheese (Ludlow Gold, Hereford Hop or a nice piece of Shropshire Red from the Shropshire cheese company and maybe a few grapes or a stick of celery. (image) As you no longer feel perfectly within your rights to down half a bottle of red wine, sleep it off then get back on the road, I settle for apple juice from Jus Apples near Ledbury or there’s always Ribena of course.
If the rain is forecast to come at you horizontally then even I would abandon the idea of a picnic and opt instead for a picnic style lunch. By that I mean plenty of dishes being passed around, lots of colour, lots of flavour, some cold, some hot. If I’m feeling very generous I might roast up some rare fillet of beef and make it go a long way with plenty of other dishes like roasted saddleback potatoes with lemon thyme, a creamy bean and Chick pea salad with some of that wild garlic thrown in and because it is May, there will have to be some local asparagus there somewhere.
For a picnic pudding you can eat with your fingers you might think along the lines of brownies or a simple cake. I became a bit of a baking obsessive last autumn when I catered for all the cast and tv crew for the filming of the new Acton Scott series. I baked two cakes and puddings each day for six weeks and this rosemary cake surprised me by being one of their favourites.
For a grown-up dinner over the Bank holiday weekends in May I wouldn’t go for lamb. To me lamb in May or June is too young and what it lacks in taste it more than makes up for in price. Save it for later on in the summer. In the meantime I might make poached local pork tenderloin; stuffed with spinach, raisins and pine nuts it is as pretty as a picture and as you will work out from the recipe, you can do all but the final stage the day before. (image)
A delicious pudding to follow the pork would be one of my favourites; floating islands. The combination of cool vanilla custard with poached pillows of meringue crisped up with caramel is heaven. As heavenly as lying on a Shropshire riverbank watching the clouds drift by, and that’s saying something.