The Roman emperor Nero ate so many leeks he earned the nickname of “Porrophagus” or “Leek Eater.” I suspect my epitaph might be similar, as I’m also an aficionado of the handsome plumed allium, currently bang in season here in the UK. So I’m not really missing those hard-to-find imported supermarket tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, which in my view taste of precious little at this time of year anyway. Instead, I’ll be celebrating St David’s Day today by throwing chopped leeks into a Cheddary tart or a bake topped with crispy breadcrumbs made from leftover bread.

Eating seasonally has become a habit since January 2021 when, curious to see how hard it would be, I set myself the challenge of eating only British food. One shopping expedition in, though, I realised that buying UK veg in supermarkets was going to be tricky, as much of it was imported. (As a nation, we import around half our veg.) So I switched to shopping in farmers’ markets, subscribed to a weekly Riverford UK-only organic veg box, and grew a bit too. A bonus was I knew how and where my veg had been grown, I had a connection with it.

Soon I was following the comings and goings of individual vegetables throughout the year as keenly as those of my bank balance. But unless you’re a grower, it’s easy to get confused about seasonality when most of us shop in supermarkets where it’s eternal summer (but without the sun-fuelled flavours and aromas). How many of us know, for instance, when calabrese broccoli is in season?

Even those who ought to be aware of their seasons can get it wrong; a recent Instagram post by National Farmers’ Union Countryside showing February’s seasonal vegetables included aubergines and chillies. But I’ve only just planted mine and they won’t ripen until at least August.

Do we even care about seasonality? Judging by the times I’ve seen tomato and red pepper soup on café menus over the past month, perhaps not. Expecting everything year-round has become the norm. But sometimes, as we’re seeing with the current veg shortages, caused by dire weather in Morocco and Spain, international supply chains can get disrupted, something that’s likely to happen increasingly often as a result of our changing climate.

Have I missed any foods during my eating British experiment? Hell yes. Marmalade, Brazil nuts, chocolate, to name three. But when it comes to veg, probably only fresh ginger, as practically all the foreign vegetables sold in supermarkets are not exotics, but equivalents of UK-grown vegetables that are either not in season or would cost the retailer more.

Curly kale and cavalo nero growing at Riverford farm in Devon (Photo: Riverford)
Curly kale and cavalo nero growing at Riverford farm in Devon (Photo: Riverford)

Personally, I enjoy waiting for vegetables’ natural UK seasons, as life would feel tummy-numbingly boring if I ate the same year round. Those vegetables reflect what’s happening outdoors, which in turn dictates what foods my body wants (which at present is warming stews and soups, not chilly salad stuffs).

With the tentative arrival of spring, last weekend’s excitement was foraging the first acid-green spears of wild garlic (welcome free veg!) in my local woods, and any day now I’m looking forward to spotting the first regal florets of purple sprouting broccoli in my Riverford box. Rather than buy green beans air-freighted from Kenya in winter, I prefer to anticipate the thrill of harvesting them squeaky fresh in summer.

Amid the complexity of modern life, having less choice actually feels liberating (something I learned in lockdown) and being forced to be inventive with whatever’s in Britain’s seasonal larder has made me a far better cook. I now cook around that larder rather than to recipes. Who knew you could do so many things with cauliflower, only a decade ago largely ignored but now a vegan hero-food? Pan-fried cauliflower steak anyone? Mash? Or would you prefer it spiced and roasted?

I also believe it’s better for both me and the planet. British seasonal veg is likely to have travelled less far and refrigerated for less time, so will be fresher, more nutritious, and often cheaper. It will almost certainly have a lower carbon footprint too, especially when compared to foreign veg that’s been flown in.

Beetroot and rosemary pasta from a recipe by Riverford Organic, using only British seasonal vegetables (Photo: Riverford)
Beetroot and rosemary pasta from a recipe by Riverford Organic, using only British seasonal vegetables (Photo: Riverford)

The picture gets muddied, however, by the fact that many commercial British growers now extend their seasons by using heated glasshouses powered by gas (although a few are now investing in renewables, such as waste heat from Combined Heat and Power plants). So I consciously buy from growers like Riverford who don’t use them.

Founder Guy Singh-Watson would like them banned. “They’re environmental madness,” he says. “We can’t carry on growing food in them just because we fancy summer foods like tomatoes in winter. If we’re serious about combatting climate change we have to go back to eating seasonally.” Actually, many heated glasshouses have been left empty this winter anyway, thanks to rocketing energy prices.

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Watch the news with its images of barren supermarket shelves, you’d think that without our imported Spanish and Moroccan veg we had nothing to eat. But a stroll across Riverford Farm near my home in Devon reveals otherwise. Rows of silver-hued leeks rock gently in the wind. Perhaps surprisingly, given the media headlines, there’s ample salad too. The farm’s (unheated) polytunnels are packed with dainty leaves from fiery ruby streaks mustard and rocket to claytonia and baby chard. I find similar abundance at the farmer’s market in nearby Totnes, its stalls laden with seasonal goodies including Jerusalem artichokes, spring greens, cauliflowers and wrinkly Savoy cabbages.

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey may have singled out winter turnip as the quintessential British vegetable, but there’s not one in sight. “They’re disgusting,” says Guy. “There’s a reason some vegetables fall out of fashion. We stopped growing winter turnips years ago. I wonder if Coffey has actually tasted one.”

Riverford Farm's 100 percent UK organic veg box Credit: Riverford Provided by victoriaholmes@riverford.co.uk
Riverford Farm’s 100 per cent UK organic veg box (Photo: James Walker/Riverford)

Whether you’ve a taste for turnips or not, other roots, harvested in autumn and stored over winter, can be epic. “A root is a plant’s natural way of storing its energy through the winter,” says Bob Andrew, Riverford’s development chef. “So in winter we have an impressive larder of everything from beetroots to parsnips, carrots, celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes.”

I may need to rely more on those soon as we hit the Hungry Gap, the period – from April to June – between the final harvest of winter crops and the maturing of this year’s new crops. But with roots, stored squashes, and a few precious greens like purple sprouting broccoli and home-grown chard, I won’t feel deprived. Plus, there are UK-grown dried beans if I need them too (buy them from Hodmedod’s).

We shouldn’t take that precious British veg for granted, though. This winter’s empty supermarket shelves have demonstrated the fragility of the UK’s food supply systems and prompted renewed calls for Britain to grow more of its own fruit and veg. We have the perfect climate, after all. Yet UK farmers are currently facing crippling challenges, from labour shortages to extreme weather caused by climate change, and rocketing fertiliser and energy costs. Supermarkets have proved reluctant to cover those increased costs by paying more, with the result that many UK farmers are struggling to survive.

Let’s hope my love of leeks helps Britain’s leek growers, at least. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get chopping.

Follow Clare on Instagram @larderloutUK. clarehargreaves.co.uk

UK vegetables to savour now

Foraged wild garlic

Wander into the woods now and you will find the young green fronds of fresh wild garlic. (Be careful to snap them rather than uproot them, which will destroy the plant). Wilt with butter for an alternative to spinach, use to flavour risottos or soups, or whizz into pesto.

Purple- and white-sprouting broccoli

If calabrese (a summer veg) is all about the flower, sprouting broccoli, starting now, is about the stem. Purple sprouting broccoli (PSB) is delicious treated like asparagus and dipped in a homemade hollandaise sauce or garlic butter. If you can find it, also try white-sprouting broccoli, which comes into season as the purple ends.

Winter salad leaves

Contrary to what you might think, salad leaves grow well in the cold, under cover. Try mustards like the lacy Ruby Streaks, the delicate leaves of red chard, claytonia, or bitter dandelion leaves.

Cabbage

Guy Watson’s absolute favourite. “People often look down on cabbage, but they’re missing a trick. A cabbage is a beautiful thing and deliciously cheap too. It’s wonderful just shredded or roughly chopped, then steamed briefly with butter and salt.”

Spring greens

If you’re not familiar with these, think floppy cabbage. Don’t be misled by the name though, as it appears well before spring. Spring greens are full of flavour and packed with vitamins C, E and K, iron, potassium, fibre and calcium. Don’t discard the stems, just slice them more thinly than the green parts or use them in soup – they are actually sweeter than the leaf.

Cook the same way as Guy cooks cabbage, or to make a complete meal, cook in a little oil then throw in some chopped pancetta/bacon and a tin of cannellini beans. Or combine with soy sauce, chilli and garlic; or diced chicken or pork.

Leeks

My favourite ways of eating leeks are in a tart with lashings of strong Cheddar cheese; in fritters (Ottolenghi does a great recipe); in a gratin – turn your leftover bread into breadcrumbs to make a crispy topping; or added to a naked barley or pot barley with some chicken stock to make a pocket-friendly risotto. Lovely baked in the oven too.

Cauliflower

This overwintering brassica can last through until the end of April. Cut it into “steaks” and pan fry or roast them; grate to make a healthy “couscous”; or spice it up with cumin and coriander in the oven and serve it with a yoghurt and tahini sauce.

Carrot, beetroot, parsnip, celeriac, potato, Jerusalem artichoke (from store)

In winter I love gratins; make variations on potato dauphinoise by alternating layers of potato and parsnip/celeriac/artichoke. Also try making a tarte tatin with carrot or beetroot, cook artichoke soup, or knock up a hummus out of beetroot and a bit of cumin.

Swede (from store)

It’s not glamorous, but definitely superior to winter turnip. A delicious recipe (and a meal in itself) is the Fondant Swede Gratin in the cookbook of Yotam Ottolenghi’s NOPI restaurant. It’s an indulgent combo of swede, cabbage, butter, cream and Caerphilly cheese, and you sprinkle it with thyme leaves and breadcrumbs from any leftover bread. Costs two or three quid to make.

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