The best kind of cooking, I don’t need to tell you, is the kind that uses a few excellent ingredients well. This is by no means a revelation. Chefs and cookery writers have been trying to drum this into us for years. The ‘old guard’, if you will, by which I mean Simon Hopkinson, Rowley Leigh, Nigel Slater, Alastair Little – all the Elizabeth David acolytes – pioneered the mantra of ‘less is more’, inspired by the Franco-Italian attitude towards food. The phrase ‘a few good ingredients, cooked with love’ has become something of a cliche, but with good reason. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Hestons of this world, but in my view that kind of cooking should remain firmly in the professional kitchen. This isn’t to say don’t experiment – if you find yourself cooking the same things week after week then maybe it’s time to start being a bit more ambitious – but ultimately the emphasis should always come down to the ingredient.
With this in mind, I’d like to champion summer as the Queen of Seasons. ‘Summer’, in the gastronomic sense (or at least my gastronomic sense) stretches from early May until late-September, lavishing on us the heavenly asparagus, spinach, beetroot and broad beans from the off, and tumbling with tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes (it’s like ratatouille was some wonderful and pre-ordained September Slut), and the last of the new potatoes as Autumn approaches. And let’s not forget the wonders that come and go in this period – strawberries, raspberries, loganberries, gooseberries, and currants; french beans, salads, sweetcorn, radishes, and artichokes. It’s all so fresh, so lively. God bless the parsnips and swedes of this world – I truly love you – but by March I’ve had just about enough.
Notwithstanding item 2 of ‘Restau-rant’ (see below), these are the ingredients that need the least attention. A radish, plucked warm from the earth and given a cursory scrubbing with the shirt before being popped in the mouth, is close to perfection (though brought closer by being dipped into soft, salty French butter). Courgettes are a joy sliced paper thin and eaten tossed with olive oil, lemon juice and shaved parmesan. Boiled artichokes need little more than a pot of melted, salty butter, the leaves plucked off, dipped, and stripped of their flesh. This stage is really just the build-up to the final event when, having removed the ‘choke’, you can devour the heart, dripping with butter.
It’s also a season for toast – sourdough rubbed with garlic and olive oil and grilled on a barbeque, its crunchy chewiness working so well with smashed broad beans and mint, or asparagus and parma ham. Mediterranean eating at its very best.
And that’s exactly where I’m going at early o’ clock tomorrow – flying to the south of France for a week’s post-exam celebration with 30 friends. I will, most likely, be off air till next weekend. Until then…