I have always viewed the ability to grow food and to cook as two important life skills. You don’t have to be in the same league as Alan Titchmarsh or Marco Pierre White – just pick up enough knowledge to produce the goods and make them palatable enough to eat.
That way, you’ll be prepared for any eventuality, from growing your way out of a dire situation as Matt Damon did in the recent film The Martian when stranded on a distant planet to cultivating your own vegetables, fruit and herbs for the sheer joy of it.
Whenever we’re out dining, it has become second nature to analyse the ingredients of what we’re eating – the way they’re presented, how they’ve been cooked and the quality of produce used.
Best of all is when the chef has been innovative, introducing an unfamiliar vegetable or herb, or combination of flavours, and you cannot quite name all of them.
Summer salads can be tricky in this respect when the lady of the house is in a creative mood and there are so many fresh ingredients out there.
Given these thoughts, you can imagine the delight felt recently at being invited to help launch a monthly fine dining event at the Sanctuary Restaurant at Alnwick Castle.
Give a short talk on spring gardening while addressing the vegetable ingredients on the menu, I was told.
I saw it as a combination of the gardening and eating-out columns I do but without a score at the end.
The spring tasting menu had seven courses, followed by coffee, and each of them came in generous portions.
Wild garlic veloute was first up. Good timing too because the star-like white flowers are out in force down the lane. You might miss the blooms in pale evening light but not the smell.
Commonly called ramsons, they’re a member of the allium family, which the 16th century herbalist John Gerard knew well. He recorded that in some European parts, a sauce for fish was made from the leaves and that they might also “very well be eaten in April and May with butter by such as are of strong constitution, and labouring men”.
However, the veloute was served hot in a small bowl with a cup-like handle as a starter soup. It was beautifully mild and a true revelation, coming as it did from such a pungent herb.
English asparagus with crispy Sunny Hill egg, Parma ham and Hollandaise sauce followed. Delicious.
The spears have not emerged in our asparagus bed yet but are anticipated within days.
Peru has been the main source of this early summer vegetable for some years, but given the air miles involved, it’s good news that a new variety, called Millennium, has been developed for earlier crops in the UK.
Asparagus is surprisingly easy to cultivate. Good drainage and a generous dose of organic matter are essential when preparing the site, and there’s a choice of starting with one-year-old crowns or sowing seed of the Arianne variety. Avoid picking the first year and anticipate two decades of harvesting thereafter.
Our bed supports three cultivars and a total of 18 plants which occupy four square metres of land.
The first spears will appear in a week or so and continue thick and fast until mid-June.
Then we stop harvesting and allow the attractive fern-like growth to develop, building up the plants’ reserves for next year.
Courses with peas, shallots, sprouting broccoli, mint sauce and rhubarb followed on our gastronomic journey, each of which is at some stage of growth in our garden at present.
Their preparation and presentation on the plate served to make this a memorable dining occasion for the best of reasons.
How could we spoil the moment by describing it in mere numbers rather than words of praise?