Summer’s essential flavours

I have a fondness for raw onion that’s turning into something of an addiction. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time in foreign parts in India, Italy and London’s Edgware Road, where many dishes are accompanied by the finely sliced bulb. Raw or cooked, onions are essential in the kitchen, as necessary as salt and lemon juice. I’ve haven’t checked with heritage seed suppliers, but I doubt there are as many varieties available today as there were 100 years ago. William Robinson’s 1905 edition of Vilmorin-Andrieux’s The Vegetable Garden lists more than 60 kinds, with such intriguing names as Giant Zittau, Very Early Rose coloured Port Sainte-Marie, Bright Red August and Bedfordshire Champion.

Apparently, we favour milder onions today, having rejected those which kept Drake’s men free from scurvy and were, according to Lawrence Hills (Grow Your Own Fruit and Vegetables, 1975), ‘strong enough to send a pirate’s parrot squawking into the rigging’. Yet, centuries old advice on the cultivation of onions still holds good: they favour well-drained, compost rich soil in a good open and sunny site, and their low nitrogen requirements suggest the avoidance of freshly manured ground. In addition to several maincrop varieties, I’m trying Furio, a red skinned spring onion. Fortnightly sowings should keep us well supplied from early June until the end of October.

I’m also partial to raw peas, and on a dawn visit to Jaipur’s wholesale fruit and veg market in January, I bought a small sackful of plump pods to keep us going all day. Peas feature widely in Indian food, associating well with mild spices and in curries using cauliflower and green beans. I’m especially fond of a Gujarati dish mentioned by Madhur Jaffrey in Eastern Vegetarian Cooking, 1983, where they’re cooked with freshly grated coconut and lashings of green coriander. Peas are easily grown, and tried and tested varieties such as Kelvedon Wonder and the mangetout type Oregon Sugar Pod require little attention other than judicious watering in a dry spell.

Given their completely different tastes, I’m surprised how many cookery writers still volunteer parsley as a substitute for coriander. Neither is difficult, and coriander grows in this garden like a weed on a railway embankment. Both are used in my kitchen in great quantities, so I raise several rows of each throughout the summer months. The parsley, of course, continues long after the arrival of frost and is there for the picking through the long winter months.

Fresh coriander is quite different from pungent, orange like coriander seed, which comes into its own with cooked apple dishes as summer advances. The first apple variety to ripen in our orchard is James Grieve, ready in August, just as the first coriander sowings are bearing seed. Joan Morgan (in The Book of Apples, 1993) aptly describes its flesh as ‘savoury, juicy, crisp yet melting? with strong acidity’, and my preferred way of cooking them (with the crushed coriander seeds) involves nothing more than a sprinkling of soft demerara sugar and unsalted butter.

Away from the kitchen garden, I have been delighted by a repeat profusion of Abu Hassan tulips. The bulbs were planted three years ago, and like many tulip varieties, I was prepared to treat them as annuals, digging them up and discarding them after their first flowering. Somehow the job was overlooked, and, pleased by their ‘second coming’ last year, we were encouraged to leave them undisturbed once more. In April this year, they looked magnificent again, having increased in number and seemingly vigour. Their mahogany red flowers with orange feathering are unusual, and they look splendid in a mist of emerging bronze fennel.

The new peony border is finally planted. Four each of half a dozen different varieties are interspersed with a fabulously black, tall, bearded iris and a low growing purpleiris. I had difficulty finding the dozen willow gentians that I wanted to complement the fiery foliage of the peonies in early autumn, so took the decision to dig a large plant and split it into the required number. Their electric blue flowers in August and September are much anticipated.