Eating seasonally in March is a real treat, as Tom Parker Bowles explains.
‘It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold,’ writes Charles Dickens in Great Expectations, ‘when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.’ That’s the thing about March — it may well mark the start of spring, all green shoots and boxing hares, but it still has a bitter bite.
Things, however, are looking up for the greedy forager. Nettles are young and sweet, fit for the picking and ready to be transformed into verdant soup. Wood sorrel, with its sharp, bracing acidity, works wonders in an omelette and adds citrus vim to any salad. Best of all are morel mushrooms, handsome and honeycombed, but they are the most elusive of mycological quarry, appearing for a scant few days, usually after the first of the warm rains. Make sure you brush any dirt and hungry bugs from those deep pits, cook them with chicken and cream, then top with a puff crust to create a pie of unparalleled majesty.
Because it’s not quite time to put away the pie dish yet. Nights may be a little shorter now, but there’s enough chill to warrant all manner of pastry-enveloped delight. Steak and kidney, obviously (and don’t stint on those kidneys), but also ham hock and mushroom, cheese and potato, prune and pheasant… there’s always a place for pie. Slow cooked ragus, too: a mixture of beef and pork, plus a whole bottle of red, gently simmered for hours. Fragrant noodle soups, made with good stock, packed full of chicken, pak choi, ginger and mangetout, with enough chilli to banish any early spring blues. Comfort is still very much in demand.
What food is in season in March?
Blood orange; clams; cockles; morels; mussels; mutton; nettles; oysters; purple-sprouting broccoli; radicchio; sardines; sea kale; venison
Lent falls in March this year and, with it, worthy, but dreary abstinence. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve given up anything since my sweet ration, at prep school, about 35 years back. That scarred me for life, although, as I get older, I do tend to have a couple of meat-free days a week. It’s more of a joy than a hardship, with endless rich tomato sauces, pots of deeply spiced daal and chickpea curries (see recipe below), scooped up with fluffy, fresh-baked naan. Or puy lentils, mixed with fried onions, garlic and chillies, enlivened with a good jolt of vinegar. A poached egg always sits on top.
The one thing I can’t get too excited about is the first of the spring lamb. Yes, it does have the most wonderful texture, tender as a mother’s kiss—but the flavour’s not yet there. I prefer to wait a few months. For me, March’s greatest bounty comes with sea kale, which starts shooting up towards the end of the month. Forced under terracotta pots, to ensure sweet, tender fronds, it tastes like a cross between asparagus and celery, but a little more gentle and ethereal. During the first lockdown last year, I had a few pots’ worth all to myself, as my mother was stuck in Scotland. Steamed for no more than a couple of minutes, then served drenched in butter or dipped into hollandaise, it is not only delectable, but inspiring, too. A taste of new growth and the first true stirring of spring.
Recipe: spicy chickpeas
This comes from Romy Gill’s Zaika, a book of Indian vegan recipes that is about warmth and flavour, rather than po-faced abstinence. Don’t worry too much about exact measures of spice—adjust to your own taste. This is the sort of dish that sits perfectly on the cusp of spring, both warm and comforting, but not too heavy, either.
- 4 tspn rapeseed oil
- 1 tspn panch phoron (mix 6tspn fenugreek seeds, 6tspn cumin seeds, 6tspn nigella seeds, 6tspn black-mustard seeds and 6tspn fennel seeds. Store in an airtight jar)
- 2 tspn ground ginger
- 1 tspn Kashmiri red-chilli powder
- 2 tspn garam masala
- 5 tspn tomato puree
- 3 tspn dried fenugreek leaves
- 1 tspn salt
- 400g tin chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- Roti, rice or a slice of toasted bread, to serve
- Heat the oil in a pan over a medium heat, then add the panch phoron and fry for one minute, until fragrant. Add the ground ginger, Kashmiri chilli powder, garam masala, tomato puree, dried fenugreek leaves, salt, 100ml water and mix well.
- Add the chickpeas to the pan, then leave them to cook over a medium heat for five minutes. Stir occasionally and check they don’t stick to the pan.
- Serve with roti, rice or toasted bread.
Throughout the year, Tom Parker Bowles will be sharing his advice on how to eat seasonlly, month-by-month. We kick things
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