Last week’s Proustian post on asparagus inspired us to come up with our own Proust Quiz on seasons and seasonal food. It’s a theme we are both passionate about, but our answers below reveal that we approach the subject from very different geographical points in the hemisphere…
WHAT IS THE TASTE/SMELL YOU ASSOCIATE WITH EACH SEASON?
FJM: Green shoots of asparagus, damp earth on the first new potatoes of spring; the first sharp-sweet gooseberries, the smell of elderflowers and elderflower ‘fizz’; blackberries – both for their taste and smell; in winter, the dark unctuous taste of a venison casserole, the smell of puddings – steamed syrup, Queen of Puddings, Sticky Toffee.
JS: Crunchy nuttiness of young vegetables in spring. Urban smells of barbecued flesh in the summer as chill bubbles of prosecco slip over your tongue. The taste of roasting game birds in autumn. Stews simmering slowly on the stove in winter, the air redolent of rum soaked fruit cakes.
In which season are you happiest?
FJM: I like the beginnings of seasons: the first cold ‘breath-steaming’ days of winter signalling the season of baked potatoes, casseroles, and puddings; catkins and crocuses promising spring with its green edible shoots; summer bare foot walking and river bank picnics; bronze-red tints colouring the leaves, a time for woodland walks and foraging.
JS: I like extremes. Winters deep with snow. As more energy is needed to keep warm, cheese fondues come into their own. Hot, arid summers, lounging in the shade with a long chilled glass of something, picking at crisp salads and berries.
What is your least favourite season?
FJM: The ends of seasons – when you’re fed up with too much cold/heat/grey days. If I had to choose, it would be winter because of the lack of sunlight.
JS: Autumn. A time of transition. Packing away the barbecue, cutting down the runner beans, finding the ones that got away, too gigantic and stringy to eat. Steamy hours in the kitchen pitting damsons for jam and pureeing roasted tomatoes for the freezer.
What is your favourite seasonal dish?
FJM: Blackberry and Apple Crumble. I love blackberry picking expeditions – apart from the scratches and stings. Worth it for the perfumed pleasure of blackberries and apples under a sweet crisp crumble, served with dollops of custard.
JS: Comfort food in winter. A bowl of creamy cheesy polenta. Served with slow cooked venison or ox cheek ragu, blanched and lightly braised cavolo nero on the side.
What is your favourite seasonal fruit?
FJM: Raspberries. In my garden in Wales, I had canes that produced fruit from June through to late October. Summer evenings, surrounded by lush green canes, picking the ripest berries, blackbirds singing in the trees – heaven!
JS: Scottish raspberries in summer. I maintain that because they take longer to grow they are sweeter. Definitely no added sugar. I can’t stand grit and berries in the same mouthful. Clotted cream, maybe.
What is your favourite seasonal vegetable?
FJM: Sun-ripened tomatoes at the end of August. I’ve virtually stopped buying them until late summer when they’re rich, intense, sweet – perfect for salads. And when they’re at their ripest, I buy kilos for making sauces, ketchups, soups. You simply can’t get the same taste further north as you can here in south west France.
JS: Easy. The much maligned Brussel sprout. Especially just before Christmas after a good frost, when they are tightly packed and nutty to taste. Blanched, braised in butter, squirted with lemon juice, then seasoned with salt and chilli flakes.
Have you been guilty of using out-of-season ingredients?
FJM: I’m afraid I have. But it’s actually quite difficult to do that here where even the big supermarkets tend not to stock out-of-season ingredients. Such a contrast to Britain.
JS: I try hard not to. As a child, we were only fed on seasonal produce. Apples were stored, beans were bottled and we looked forward to different foods marking off the year’s progression. Asparagus tips appeared at the same time new potatoes were dug up in spring. Raspberry juice ran down our chins in the summer after raiding the soft fruit enclosures.
“My local market is Ridley Road in Dalston. This photo was taken in late February. The price of the berries is incredibly cheap and the stall holders professed to not knowing where they were grown. At the end of this food chain, which I suggest is many miles from the UK, who knows what the workers are paid to pick this fruit or even what conditions they have to live in?” – Judi
Do you associate fish or meat with seasons?
FJM: Yes. In Wales, it would be the first sweet-tasting Welsh spring lamb and then pheasant and game in rich casseroles for early autumn. Here in France, it’s lemony scallops in the spring, foie gras in the autumn, and pork in the winter.
JS: Yes, to a lesser degree. I eat no shellfish when there is a R in the month, as that’s when they spawn their young. I eat game only in the shooting season and rely on a Cornish fishmonger to tell me what is fresh and what is frozen.
What do you think we have lost in a world where we can buy anything, anytime?
FJM: Anticipation and discipline. The pleasure of looking forward to something coming into season, and the discipline of not spending a fortune until something’s in season. Plus I’m also now very conscious of those environmentally disastrous air miles that bring us green beans and strawberries in the middle of winter.
JS: The joy of anticipation for seasonal firsts. I lived in Ghana for sixteen months without seeing an apple. I can’t tell you how wonderful that first bite was, crisp and cold from the fridge.
COULD YOU LIVE WITHOUT THE SEASONS I.E. IN EQUATORIAL CLIMES OR IN THE ARCTIC/ANTARCTICA?
FJM: Yes. I grew up on the Equator in Nairobi. The sun rose every day at seven and set every evening around six thirty – ‘sundowner time’ – G&T and whisky and soda for my parents, warm milk for me and my sister (yeeuch!). Apart from two rainy seasons, it was always warm and sunny. My first winter in Britain was a real shock – so dark, so cold. I definitely need sunshine.
JS: No, but I have done. In Haiti. Come Christmas we’d hive up to a log cabin, 1,550 metres above sea level. We spray-snowed the windows, dressed an artificial tree laden with fake snow, and I grated off the fat from goat kidneys to make suet for puddings. Unfortunately, when the pudding was flamed, it smelt strongly of goat.
Which cookery writers do you associate with different seasons?
FJM: Delia Smith for winter, Tamasin Day-Lewis for the summer, Jane Grigson for spring, and Elizabeth David for any day of the year.
JS: Delia Smith for winter, for more traditional cooking. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in spring as he locally sources all his produce. Summer, Bill Granger, an Oz, who does outside eating and cooking exceptionally well, and Nigel Slater for autumn as I like his game recipes.