Benoit Blin, executive pastry chef from Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, talks to Rosie Birkett about his favourite dessert ingredients and the best seasonal produce
Working with the seasons isn't something that should just apply to the starter and main course dishes, especially since so much of nature's bounty is ideal for pudding creations.
Incorporating seasonal ingredients into your dessert menu gives it a real sense of freshness and context. It's also cheaper for your business (whether or not you grow your own), and a great catalyst to creativity. "It's more expensive to buy out of season, so you're costing yourself money," says Benoit Blin, executive pastry chef from Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. "If you start feeding people the same produce all year round you can get bored and it can stunt your innovation. I remember when I was younger, waiting for those first peaches at the market, or that first bag of cherries - it's very exciting, and I think that excitement in food needs to be there for the customers."
Here are Blin's suggestions for seasonal ingredients that can be used to bring freshness and excitement to your dessert repertoire.
With their unique sweet flavour, compatibility with cream and summer associations, strawberries (which are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants) are a perfect ingredient to indicate the end of the cooler, darker months on your menu. British strawberry season runs from late May to July, but early season French strawberries, such as Gariguette, start arriving on the market around the end of March, beginning of April. "It's fantastic when they start to arrive, because March can be a bit of a killer for desserts - as we've used up all of the winter fruits and apples and there's not much out on the market," says Blin.
While these early strawberries, which are grown under cover, may not be as sweet and juicy as later berries, "they are the first sign to us that we are coming out of winter and that it's time to start celebrating the strawberry."
It's an adaptable fruit that's easily and effectively puréed, and Blin suggests creating a dessert which has more than one element of strawberry in it, for example using the juice from the steamed berry to make a crème glacée (ice-cream without egg) or a fresh strawberry sorbet with, perhaps, a strawberry jelly for a contrast in temperature. Indeed, Blin has a dish called Strawberry Theme, which is a celebration of the Gariguette strawberry, comprising those elements and a tuile, coulis, and some roughly chopped Gariguettes in big chunks ("so that we don't lose that texture, juiciness and acidity of the strawberry"). He says that the fruit lends itself to versatile interpretations, but that the special flavour of the strawberry should be allowed to speak for itself, although a dash of kirsch can enhance the flavour.
For Blin, the arrival of cherries in the summer months is very exciting, "because they bring summer on to the plate." The cherry season starts at the end of May when the first French and Spanish cherries come on the market and later on in June and July English cherries arrive. "We tend to use France as a back garden as well because England cannot always consistently produce the quantity or the quality to equal them," says Blin, who favours the French variety Rainer cherries - pale, two-tone fruits with a juicy bite. "Now places like Kent are very focused on quality growing of special varieties and they have very good consistency."
Cherries marry well with lemon, whose acidity lifts their own, and because of their subtle, delicate and particularly sweet flavour, Blin suggests cooking black cherries such as the Lapin variety with spices to announce the flavour. "Warm, spiced black cherries work really well," he says. "We use them in our Manoir Classique dish which is a fresh lemon parfait wrapped in a thin honey pastry. We use big black cherries which are sweet tasting and very juicy and we cook them with a little bit of cardamom, vanilla and cinnamon. When you cook them with this spice combination, suddenly the flavour of the cherry explodes."
Because of the relatively short nature of the cherry season (it finishes at the end of July) Blin emphasises the importance of making the most of the fruit and advises chefs to make sure "nothing is wasted" by making compotes and even using the cherry stones, which have an almond-like quality and can be added to stocks to flavour sauces.
"Lavender coincides with the peach and apricot season, which is perfect as they combine very well," says Blin, who uses lavender from plants in the grounds of Le Manoir. He suggests using lavender to infuse the fresh stone fruits and freezing the stems in the event of a late peach and apricot season. "Peaches are just starting and really get going in July - soft fruits have been a bit late this year and the apricot season is just starting - so freeze some lavender and then use it to infuse fresh peaches when they are fully in season to make a peach and lavender sorbet.
"Take the flesh of the peach and blitz it with some sugar and then infuse some of that with the lavender - you don't want it to overtake the flavour of the peach, rather be a sweet balance between the two. The sorbet works well with poached peach and vanilla, some orange slices, a drop of white wine and a tiny bit of sugar."
The floral, fragrant lavender is also something that works well in afternoon tea, and Blin suggests creating tartlets with the herb and infusing apricot jam with lavender flower. "It's not about having the lavender all the way through, but you'll find that the lavender lifts the apricot flavour. I tend to find that produce that comes up in season around the same time marries well together, as often does produce from the same region."
Apples and pears
"For me, autumn is all about apples and pears," says Blin. "They are the classics and the fruits that everyone expects - but there are so many different varieties of them to work with, you can approach them in many different ways. Apples start in late July, early August, with the local English varieties coming through in September.
"Braeburn apples are good to use for cooking and French Jazz apples work well for warm desserts like croustades, but you have to adapt according to when the market releases the different apples. It's good to work with lots of different varieties, but of course, they cook differently, so a freshly picked apple and new-season apple releases more water and you might want to try to find an older, less watery apple for things such as tarte tatin.
"With the pear, in September you will have the first Williams coming in from Italy and France, then you move on to the Comice pear which comes with wax on to preserve the flavour and juiciness of the fruit. Those are the ones I really look forward to because they are very special. They're quite large fruit, very flavourful and juicy - a little tart, but a lovely balanced flavour."
The Comice pears lend themselves particularly well to caramelisation, as Blin points out. "We use them for caramelisation in our classic Pear Charlotte dish, which is a pan-fried brioche shell filled with caramelised pear segments, with pear halves caramelised on the top. It's comfort food - because you've come to that time of year when the weather is not great, the days are shorter and you need to pick yourself up with a little bit of energy and a bit of sugar."
Mixing temperatures is a good way to add intrigue, and Blin recommends combining warm fruit with either ice-creams or sorbets. He suggests serving the caramelised fruit with a vanilla and cinnamon ice-cream - two ingredients that work well with the mellow flavour of the pear, or a pear and star anise sorbet. These spices really complement the sweet, dense fruit.
"Those special, bitter oranges that come from Andalucía in the south of Spain from December to late January/early February are great for marmalade, but also work in desserts," says Blin, for whom Seville oranges are a real seasonal treat. "We only get Seville oranges for around one month, so make the most of it and go mad for making marmalade.
"The marmalade works brilliantly in a dessert like bitter coffee panna cotta, which you could add a crunch to with a praline base made with almond and hazelnuts."
Because of the intense, sharp flavour of the oranges, Blin suggests combining them with other powerful ingredients such as bitter coffee, dark chocolate and star anise. "Because the flavours are all intense, and a big hit in themselves, mixing them up makes real sense. Coffee, orange and anise work very well together."
"The trends we've seen show that popularity of individual desserts changes with the season," says Steven Pike, director of The Mystery Dining Company, the specialist customer experience analyst for the hospitality and leisure sectors.
"Comparing menu preferences across a number of different food chains, cheesecake was the most popular dessert in the summer and spring months, with around a quarter of all diners opting for it. Meanwhile, traditional dishes such as sticky toffee pudding and crumbles were firm favourites in winter. Ice-cream and sorbet are consistently popular, with around 15% of diners ordering them year round."
"Ice-cream is the best-selling dessert in pubs, hotels and restaurants, followed by cheesecake and sundaes, all of which are perfect for creating something special with fresh, locally grown summer fruits and berries," says Catherine Hinchcliff, marketing controller at 3663 First for Foodservice.
"Staple desserts such as apple pie and chocolate fudge cake can easily be given a summer twist simply by adding a scoop of ice-cream. If you are using ready-prepared desserts add fresh local fruit and edible flowers to make the dish more attractive and summery."