With the game season due to start in less than a fortnight, Tom Vaughan looks at the seasonality of produce in the British Isles and what it means to chefs and restaurateurs, who highlight the season ahead
"I can't believe it when I go into a top-end restaurant at Christmas and there's strawberries on the menu," grumbles Pete Weeden, head chef of London's Paternoster Chop House. "Strawberries mean summer to me. I want to wait till June, gorge myself silly on them till August, then not see another for 10 months."
Weeden, who is an absolute stickler for British seasonal produce, has a fair point. As a nation, our respect for home-grown produce has dwindled over the years. In France and Italy, the scale and inaccessibility of much of their land has meant that market culture, with its seasonal and regional emphasis, has survived almost unaltered for centuries.
But in Britain, this hasn't really been the case. Paul Waddington, in his book Seasonal Food, blames a reliance on refrigeration, a globalised food market and the rise of industrialised farming for our neglect of the seasons. So even though the UK's seasonal eating movement has picked up pace in the past decade, it's now in danger of becoming just a fad, with supermarkets jumping on the bandwagon to tout themselves as supporters of seasonal food, despite importing South American asparagus for 10 months of the year.
In a hurry to eat British, people seem to be forgetting the reasons behind it. After all, why should restaurants follow the seasons, when you can get most produce all year round?
One of the reasons why France has been more committed to regional, seasonal food than Britain is the culture of the bistro, which allowed the public to enjoy good food without the formality of going to a restaurant. In the UK, there has been no real comparison.
Steve Downey, owner of meat and seafood supplier Chef Direct, explains that, over the course of his career supplying top-end British restaurants, he has seen a change in our eating culture.
The London eating scene, he feels, really only kicked off in 1967 when the Roux brothers opened Le Gavroche, followed shortly by chefs such as Raymond Blanc and Pierre Koffmann, all of whom adhered to a classic French style of cooking. "It all relied very much on Escoffier, and an emphasis on the style of cooking rather than the ingredient," says Downey. "If they had to get vanilla pods from Madagascar, then so be it."
However, by the late 1980s, British chefs such as Rowley Leigh, Alastair Little and Simon Hopkinson began to move away from this style of cooking, to refocus on the basics. A new focus on the ingredient appeared, and with it the idea that home-grown British produce tasted superior to imported equivalents.
A decade later, the openings of the Eagle in Farringdon in 1991 and St John Bar and Restaurant in Smithfield in 1994 heralded a new wave of affordable, pared-down restaurants focusing on simply cooked, British produce. The success of these two London sites ushered in the wave of gastropubs that sprang up across the country from the late 1990s.
"You can't underestimate the effect of gastropubs," says Downey. "They brought affordable food to the masses without the formality of going to a restaurant. And, with their general focus on well-prepared British food and ingredients, put our produce and cuisine firmly back on the radar."
Television personalities such as Rick Stein and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall championed local producers and British produce, while the green movement and the notion of food miles put more onus on chefs to source from as close to their restaurants as possible.
"The movement was born out of genuine concern," says Downey. "But, as with any movement, there will always be people who will try to profiteer off the back of it."
Creeping in now are the faddish claims of seasonality, often backed with little substance. Many midmarket high-street chains now take every chance to promote menu items as being seasonal, despite seldom changing their offerings, knowing that they can cash in on the public's new-found desire to eat fresh seasonal produce. In the rush to be seasonal, the original message behind the movement has been lost as the bandwagon has picked up speed.
But why should we eat with the seasons? Phil Howard, chef-proprietor of the Square in London, rigorously ensures that his menu reflects the time of year. "There are three main reasons I'd cite for this," he says. "First, you get the produce when it's at its freshest and cheapest. Second, things that are in season naturally taste great together, so it makes menu-planning a lot easier. Third, with the focus now put on carbon footprints and food miles, if it's in season it'll be available locally, meaning you're not importing, say, asparagus all the way from Peru."
Seasonality, says Howard, is eating food when it's at its absolute best, and only through experience can you acquire the knowledge of when this is. "It takes years and years around food to have your finger on the pulse of when everything is at its best," he says. "But, after 16 years at the Square, I'd like to think I'm pretty much there."
One advantage many chefs have is a rural location. James Mackenzie, chef-proprietor of the Pipe & Glass Inn in South Dalton, says that his position in the heart of the East Yorkshire countryside makes it a lot easier to follow the seasons. "I can look through the window in May and see the first wild garlic growing, or the young nettles starting," he says. "It not only inspires the menu, but it inspires the younger chefs and makes them remember when produce is in season."
Being on nature's doorstep is a far cry from the position London-based chefs find themselves in, but Howard says it is by no means impossible to watch what's growing from the capital. "I make a real effort to forage what I can from London," he says. "I'll go along to Barnes and forage blackberries or gooseberries - it gives you a chance to see when they're at their best rather than being told."
Weeden, whose restaurant is near St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London, nevertheless makes concerted efforts to get back to nature. Every week, he sets aside a day to go foraging, and often spends half a day of his own time exploring the season's produce. "You have to know when garlic or sea beet is coming in," he says. "Know when it's warm and what the weather is doing to the crops. You have to keep that connection, you can't rely on faxes."
The other rule of thumb, says Weeden, is to have absolute confidence in your supply chain. "You have to have belief in the supplier and the supplier has to have belief in the fishermen," he says. "If you get some fish and it's not good enough, have the confidence to send it back, however small your restaurant. The River Café would, Gordon Ramsay would, Marcus Wareing would why shouldn't you?"
John Campbell, executive chef of the Vineyard at Stockcross, goes one step further than this. He avers: "Outside a marriage, boyfriend or girlfriend, your relationship with your supplier is the most important one you'll have." Working together is intrinsic to this, he adds. "If you push and push for a win and try to short-change the supplier, you'll lose him," he says, "and everyone will lose in the long run."
While Weeden's flexible menu relies on what's available in the market that morning, Campbell, with two Michelin stars, has to ensure a higher technical level of cuisine and consistency for his customers. In order to maximise the seasons, months of planning before an ingredient's availability are needed. To this end, all menus from previous years are dated and archived, while a record is kept of what was bought, when it was bought and whether it was good.
However, Campbell admits that this archiving can only predict a dish's consistency with 50% reliability. A further 30% is in the preparation before the season arrives using produce that isn't quite at its best to plan and mould the dish. "As August approaches and I want to work on a pheasant dish, I'll get someone to find me pheasant," he says. "It won't be a very good pheasant, but I'll get one. You have to prepare if you wait for the season to be on top of you, you'll miss it by the time your dish is perfected."
Even with all this preparation, Campbell admits that it's possible to predict what a dish will be like with only 80% consistency. "That remaining 20% is entirely down to what the season produces and what arrives at the restaurant," he says. "It's only right that you are answerable to the weather and the seasons."
Howard admits that his cooking is more intuitive than Campbell's, and that he doesn't demand quite the same level of preparation. But, also running a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, his menu has to stay consistent and he can't react to produce's availability in the way Weeden can.
To maintain a balance between seasonality and consistency, Howard divides the year into five seasons. Winter is split into two seasons, concentrating from October to December on game birds and from January to March on venison and hare, with the bulk of the vegetables remaining the same. Summer and spring are divided into the other three seasons. "Nothing stays in season for more than eight weeks during this time," he says, "so there's no way you can have a three-month menu, as some restaurants do, and stay seasonal."
Marcus Wareing, head chef at the two-Michelin-starred Pétrus in London, admits that, before he competed on BBC1's Great British Menu competition, he had paid little heed to the British seasons. However, making the programme forced him to visit suppliers and farmers, and he confesses that the experience bettered him as a chef.
"I was going round and round, asking myself, ‘Why, why, why [didn't we get a second star]?' It woke me up. This land has better produce than anywhere else in the world, providing you get it at the right time, in the right season. You can't beat our animals, you can't beat our game, you can't beat our strawberries in the summer. Our asparagus is the best in the world when it's at its prime. The key question is, are we ever ready for it as chefs? The answer is, no, we're not. You've got to start thinking about the next season, moving before the season is on top of you. Because it's too late, then - by the time you've got your ideas on the plate, you've written your menu, you've got your manager to understand you, the season's gone, too late, finished."
With the growing emphasis on seasonality in the national press, the public know better than ever when produce is at its best, and will judge a menu accordingly. "Diners are a lot savvier than five years ago," says Weeden. "You can't pull the wool over their eyes any more. They expect you to stick to the seasons."
It's not only the public who benefit from a growing focus on seasonality, but young chefs. For example, James Lowe, head chef at St John Bread and Wine in London, did an 18-month stint as a chef de partie at the Fat Duck in Bray, and says that Heston Blumenthal's cooking puts the importance of a technical approach to food above seasonality. As a result, the tasting menu would stay the same for most of the year. "As a young chef, it would kill me dealing with asparagus in winter," says Lowe. "One year, we were perfecting a butternut squash risotto which was planned for December, but by the time it was good enough for the menu it was February, by which time they were out of season and we were importing them."
After leaving the Fat Duck, Lowe took a job at St John Bread and Wine under the tutelage of St John Bar and Restaurant founder Fergus Henderson. Lowe says: "Fergus told me that nature writes the menu and that's what keeps you going as a chef - watching the seasons change, watching the new produce come in and the old go out. And that's where the challenge lies - reacting to what nature has on offer."
Cèpes - bySat Bains, chef proprietor, Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms, Nottinghamshire
I love the diversity of cèpes. For me, they encapsulate autumn, they've got that heady, woodland aroma, and they're fantastically diverse. When I worked in Montpellier eight years ago, they had the best cèpes I've ever seen, and they'd come in 100kg batches, some of them the size of rugby balls, but without any worms they were all in perfect condition.
In the restaurant, we sometimes do a carpaccio of cèpes, where we marinate them in truffle and sherry vinaigrette and slice them thinly.
We also get solid ones sometimes, and shave them over dishes - it just lifts them up with a woodland flavour.
Cèpes need a long, dry summer then a good rainfall. If it rains in the first week of September, you get a fantastic crop. Unless we get some good weeks of sunshine during August, this year is going to be a washout for the cèpe crop.
Mallard - by James Lowe, head chef, St John Bread & Wine, London
Autumn begins with the fruits and vegetables benefiting from a full summer's growth. September gives the dark fruits and berries and the ripest tomatoes. Then come pumpkins and, later, celery, fennel and leeks are all on the go.
We take sprats for granted sometimes but, come October, they are available fresh and are fantastic!
More than anything, autumn is about game for me. From the moment it finishes, I can't wait for it to start again. The smell of grouse or partridge roasting, and the browning butter in the pan, is a smell you never get tired of.
The first of the season's mallard are particularly good, and they are a fixture on our menu. Their varied diet leads to different flavours, but that's all part of the fun.
Woodland produce - by David Everitt-Matthias, chef-proprietor, Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham
Autumn is a favourite season of mine, second only to spring. Not least because it heralds the first flush of wild mushrooms, the majestic cèpe and the lesser known bay boletus, the fabulous saffron milk-cap with its deep saffron-coloured "milk" and the blue limb with its perfumed flavour.
All of these can be found during walks in the forest. In a bad mushroom season, when a very dry or a very wet summer causes the cèpe and boletus crop to fail, other produce abounds.
There are the wonderfully tart crab apples you can use their juice as a substitute for verjuice. Reduce equal quantities of crab apple juice and mead to a syrupy consistency and it makes a great dressing for monkfish and langoustines.
Then there is the chestnut, which can be used to produce a glorious soup which is warming and hearty simply by itself. Alternatively, dilute a little and serve with seared scallops, a little pear and a few slivers of finely sliced dried chestnuts for texture.
The many varieties of pumpkin appear at this time of year, and are a firm favourite of mine. I prefer the crown prince because of its sweetness it has less starch and holds less water.
However, I think my favourite free food of autumn has to be the acorn, with its complex flavours of caramel, coffee, chocolate and spices.
Partridge - by James Mackenzie, chef-proprietor, Pipe & Glass Inn, South Dalton, East Yorkshire
English grey-legged partridge is a favourite of mine, for its superior meat compared with the red-legged, and also because it's less common, making it very special when we get hold of some.
The red-legged was introduced in the 17th century from France and is the bird you will most likely find on a commercial shoot.
All partridge is in season from 1 September to to 1 February, but the best grey-legs are from the first three months of the season. They are recognisable by their yellowish legs, flexible, dark beaks and pointy flight feathers.
The distinctive difference between the English and the French partridge, beyond colour, is that the English being a wild bird, it is more flavoursome, although a little smaller.
Hanging time should be three to five days. If you are fortunate enough to have some young grey-legs, roast them traditionally - they go particularly well with chestnuts, curly kale and parsnips.
Staying in season
- Forge a good relationship with a supplier. If your menu relies on quick changes according to what is available, this rapport is vital.
- If your menu remains the same for long spells, divide the year according to produce availability, not the traditional four seasons. Phil Howard, chef-proprietor of the Square, recommends dividing the year into five seasons - two winter seasons (October to December and January to March) then three spring/summer seasons.
- Get outside! Plan foraging trips and get back to nature at least once a fortnight. See with your own eyes what the seasons are doing.
- If your dishes require a lot of planning, use inferior produce to get them prepared before the British crop starts, so you can maximise the season.
Seasonal guides and cookbooks
- Seasonal Food, by Paul Waddington
- The River Cottage Year, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
- A Year in My Kitchen, by Skye Gyngell
- British Regional Food: In Search of the Best British Food Today, by Mark Hix
- Food in England, by Dorothy Hartley
- The Last Food of England, by Marwood Yeatman
Chef Direct, Somerset 01275 474707 www.chefclubdirect.co.uk
Flying Fish Seafoods, Cornwall 01726 862876
Tim Alsop Fishmerchant of Looe, Looe, Cornwall 07813 121188 www.buzzfield.co.uk
Yorkshire Game, Richmond, North Yorkshire 01748 810212 www.yorkshiregame.co.uk
The Ginger Pig, Pickering, North Yorkshire 01751 460242
Aberfoyle Butcher, Aberfoyle, 01877 382473 www.aberfoyle butcher.co.uk
Carroll's Potatoes, Near Berwick-upon-Tweed 01890 883060 www.heritage-potatoes.co.uk
Caledonian Wild Foods, Glasgow, 0141-950 2412
Fresh Direct, Oxfordshire 01869 365600 www.freshdirect.co.uk