Menus that rely on seasonal ingredients are now ubiquitous. But not every new arrival is greeted in the same way.
This week sees the first appearance of two seasonal British ingredients: asparagus and new season’s lamb. The former will be embraced with glee by every chef who sees these thick, verdant stalks as a sign – along with wild garlic, spring greens, purple sprouting broccoli, wild leeks and nettles – that spring has finally sprung.
New season’s lamb will not engender the same enthusiasm. For many chefs this meat simply does not have the same depth of flavour as the lamb they have been buying for the past six months. This older lamb, now technically called hogget because it is a year old, is what they will continue to delight in cooking.
This year looks like being a vintage crop for British asparagus, according to Vernon Mascharenhas of Secretts Farm, Surrey, who supplies 280 professional kitchens. He recently reported that the crown of the nascent asparagus had already appeared in a good position thanks to unseasonably warm weather at the end of February and early March. His only regret was that the potential lower prices due to increased supply would be offset by higher fuel costs.
Tom Pemberton, chef at Hereford Road in west London and a stickler for British ingredients, has been kept abreast of Secretts’ asparagus development by a series of e-mails from Mascharenhas. “I’m expecting my first delivery on April 11,” he said. “And if the price isn’t too high – it can be at the beginning, because of the novelty factor – it will go straight on to the menu.”
Although the asparagus will appear in different guises on his daily-changing menu, the cooking principle will not change: nothing too dramatic. Grilled and topped with a grated, hard British cheese; steamed alongside a fried duck egg or anointed with rapeseed oil. And, of course, he’ll be “using all the trimmings for an asparagus soup.”
But this enthusiasm for asparagus pales relative to the pleasure Pemberton derives from cooking lamb, an ingredient that is never off his menu due to his weekly purchase of one whole lamb from a Welsh farmer whose name, he assured me, really is Tom Jones.
A recent dinner at Hereford Road began with an excellent combination of lambs’ sweetbreads with pearl barley and mint that Pemberton had created to give an English twist to a dish initially inspired by the Middle East. Lamb appeared twice more in the main courses: as slices of a pink rump alongside an exceptionally well-judged arrangement of celeriac and anchovy; and as a whole lamb shoulder with leeks and laverbread.
Pemberton’s appetite for cooking lamb with the requisite age and flavour extends to lambs’ tongues, which he brines; kidneys; the saddle; the leg; and the breast, which he rolls around a plethora of herbs. The passion in his voice dissipated only when I asked him about new season’s lamb and when it might first appear on his menu. “It has only half the flavour of the lamb we’re buying at the moment. I won’t be putting it on the menu until July at the earliest.”
To understand why this is the case I turned to Tim Wilson, who, over the past decade, has become the source of great meat and up-to-the-minute counsel for both domestic and restaurant chefs.
Wilson farms extensively in Yorkshire and, since 2004, has developed four successful branches of The Ginger Pig butcher’s shops across London. He kindly interrupted a meeting with his accountant to talk to me but laughed somewhat resignedly when I mentioned that the topic was going to be new season’s lamb.
“When we first opened in London we never stocked new season’s lamb but we’ve been forced to because that’s what our customers believe is right to eat at Easter. But it isn’t.” As he explained, new season’s lamb refers to lambs that are born now rather than lamb that is ready to eat now. “To have young lamb ready to eat now means tupping the ewe in September and October rather than in January. This can be done, although it’s much more expensive.”
When I asked Wilson when his spring lamb would be ready to eat his response was precise. “July 2, when they’ve been out in the fields for 20 weeks.” By which time other seasonal pleasures will be ready, too.
On May 9 Nicholas Lander will host an evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall devoted to the pleasures of afternoon tea and sherry, joined by Heston Blumenthal and Jancis Robinson; www.southbankcentre.co.uk/teaandsherry
3 Hereford Road, Westbourne Grove, London, W2, 020 7727 1144, www.herefordroad.org
The Ginger Pig
Branches at Borough Market, and in Marylebone, Hackney and Waterloo, 01751 460091, www.thegingerpig.co.uk