Winter – we’ve officially had enough of you. Clare Hunt tucks into the best veg that spring has to offer
With British springtime officially kicking off on 20 March, the psychological clouds start to lift, the season brings optimism, and minds turn to a brand-new year of fresh produce.
Seasonal spring vegetables don’t appear on the shelves with a bang – it’s a slow burn, but one that’s worth keeping your eye on. The earliest crops can be the sweetest and certainly the most gratifying of the year. Ashley Wheeler, who runs Trill Farm Garden in Axminster, says: “Spring is a bit of a teasing time for vegetables. The days are getting longer and we are coming out of winter, so it feels like there will be lots of vegetables ready. However, in reality there is not a huge amount available until late spring; but when it comes, it’s great. After feasting on kale and root vegetables all winter, it’s a treat to taste the first radishes, spring onions, fresh garlic and the first baby beetroots. They all seem so sweet and fresh in the spring.”
So, as the days lengthen and temperatures (hopefully) rise, what springtime treats should we be looking out for?
Zinging with vibrant colour, spring’s leafy greens range from the first baby spinach leaves to peppery rocket and punchy watercress. The wild larder starts to offer pungent wild garlic and young, delicate nettles for those keen to go foraging. All leafy greens are packed full of vitamins and superfood promises, but if it’s flavour you’re looking for, the greens have no difficulty offering a broad spectrum. Alex Coutts, head gardener at The Pig at Combe, says: “For me, the best vegetable coming from the garden in spring has to be the cavolo nero shoots. This kale has done us wonders over winter, providing us with a good amount of delicious greens. Just as it comes to the end of its life, it tries to flower to go to seed. We will pick these small shoots in abundance, like you would a sprouting broccoli, although eaten straight off the plant while harvesting for the kitchen is the real treat.”
Winter may feel root-heavy, but spring brings with it roots of a very welcome and diverse nature: tiny baby beetroots are super-sweet and crunchy (with extra leafy potential in the beet tops), while the first radishes bring early promise of crisp summer salads, and versatile spring onions can be crisp and mild or eye-wateringly punchy. For many, it’s the arrival of the first tender-skinned new potatoes (Jersey Royals among them) that’s a real cause for celebration – boiled, buttered and eaten simply, they’re a magical taste of spring.
Odd to think, but cauliflower really is a flower (of sorts) and the first white curds of the year are a welcome sight. Purple sprouting broccoli and calabrese (the ‘normal’ green broccoli we now consider purple sprouting’s slightly inferior brother) are excellent sources of dietary fibre and boast an array of vitamins from A and K to C, as well as calcium and antioxidants. But health-giving properties aside, they’re a versatile veg that can be boiled, baked, griddled and puréed in any number of recipes. The year’s first asparagus spears will be fine and tender, and packed with distinctive flavour.
Looking forward to summer, the first pod vegetable to make its appearance in spring is the broad bean. “I like to cook the very first broad beans still in their pods, when they are still really small,” says Ashley. “Just blanched, then dressed with fresh garlic and oil is great.”