A stroll through an open-air market in late spring can be pure therapy to the frazzled shopper. Where a trip to a major supermarket is nothing short of a penance, a market can entice, delight and inspire: the sight of a trestle of hen's eggs under a green and white awning, a shaded table of smoked trout and bunches of watercress, or one devoted solely to the milk, cheese and yogurt from a single herd of buffalo. If life cannot exist without a weekly trawl around Tesco, then a 'top-up' at a farmers' market for locally sourced and morning-fresh produce will at least dim the memory of pushing a laden trolley down the screaming aisles.
The pace of a market is slower, but the stalls, with their soft greens and buttermilk colours, are easier on the eye than the vivid red signs that yell 'Buy one - get one free'. (If there is one thing worse than an imported Washington Red apple, it is two of them.) Loaves flecked with rosemary, sunflower seeds and black olives; tables full of oven-ready ducks or goat's cheeses; crates of tufted carrots, and bundles of asparagus all quietly ask for our attention, as do the rows of thyme, oregano and parsley in pots ready to perch on the kitchen windowsill. A bunch of radishes with its plume of green leaves or a freshly baked focaccia with its crusting of sea salt doesn't need a loud red sticker to get our attention.
The markets have warmed up over the past few weeks, and now asparagus, broad beans and tomatoes are a reality rather than a distant memory of last summer. My own broad beans are up late this year, but looking all the healthier for their mulch of rotted bracken and horse manure, as are the strawberry plants and currant bushes, and the gooseberries that lay barren last year are dotted here and there with tiny fruit.
First quick supper of the week was a plate of crostini and broad beans. The toasted ciabatta was cut quite thinly and rubbed with a cut clove of garlic and soaked with olive oil. The beans were first boiled then tossed with Tuscan olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a few chopped mint leaves then piled on to the toasted ciabatta with thick slices of soft, fresh goat's cheese. The sort of spring cheese that is so fresh you can hardly get it home without it getting squashed. It was a clean, fresh little supper, followed by rhubarb crumble with crushed amaretti in the topping.
The second involved a risotto with broad beans and bacon, with the remains of the goat's cheese stirred in in lieu of extra butter. And while I think of it, the young Pecorinos, surprisingly soft and nutty, are worth looking at right now. Not just for grating into rice, but for using in large, flat flakes to go in salads of pears and walnuts and young pointy-leafed spinach.
A couple of heads of the new season's garlic, mild, green and gentle, worked their subtle magic inside a simple roast chicken last night.
I bruised the whole head with a cleaver, only slightly breaking their soft white and green skins, then tucked them inside the bird. I do find roasting a chicken for at least some of the time on its breast beneficial. Some disagree, and I would have done so a year or two ago, but I think differently now, and feel the breasts stay juicier that way. And isn't that what spring is all about, the sap rising, the juices flowing, our spirits and appetites ready for the new?
Chicken with new potatoes and young garlic
Here, the young garlic is cooked inside the chicken then scooped out with a spoon and mashed into the gravy. While inside, the garlic sends a subtle aromatic note through the roasting bird, although its real point is to add flavour to the gravy. Serves 4.
20 new potatoes
a large head of new season's garlic
a large free-range chicken
2 bay leaves
2 glasses of white wine, white vermouth or stock
Scrub the potatoes, cut each one in half lengthways and boil them in deep, salted water for 15 minutes, then drain them. Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Break the head of garlic into cloves, then bash them lightly with a cleaver or a pestle until the skins are split and the cloves lightly bruised. Tuck them inside the chicken with a little salt and pepper, the bay leaves and butter. Put the chicken into a roasting tin and rub generously with olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Turn the bird breast-side down and add the potatoes. Roast in the preheated oven till its juices run clear when the thickest part of its flesh is pierced with a skewer (just over an hour). Turn the bird the right way up after 30 minutes in the oven. Scoop the garlic out of the chicken into the roasting tin. Lift the chicken on to a heated plate and keep warm, and transfer the potatoes into a warm serving dish. Pour out any excess fat from the roasting tin, put the tin over a moderate heat and pour in the wine or stock. Bring to the boil, scraping at the crusty bits on the tin and letting them dissolve, mashing the garlic cloves into the liquid with a fork. Season with salt and pepper. Strain through a sieve (or pour into a warm jug, holding the crushed garlic back with a fork). Carve the chicken, serve with potatoes and the garlic juices.
Broad bean and goat's cheese risotto
If the beans are young (I think they should be), there is no need to skin them. Instead of goat's cheese, you can try a young Pecorino, finely grated, or a blue cheese - something with a fresh tang to it. Serves 4.
300g shelled broad beans
150g cubed pancetta
a small onion
300g Arborio rice
a glass of white wine
a litre of stock
150g soft, fresh goat's cheese
Cook the broad beans in deep, lightly salted water then drain and set aside. Unless the beans are very small, you may want to pop them from their skins. Melt the butter in a heavy-based pan and let the pancetta cook gently in it. Peel and finely chop the onion then leave it to cook in the butter until it is soft but shows no sign of browning. Tip in the rice, stir to coat in the butter, then pour in the wine. Little by little add the hot stock, stirring pretty much continuously, adding more only when each addition of stock has been absorbed by the rice. Check the rice for tenderness - it should still have a bit of bite. Stir in the cooked beans and the cubed goat's cheese, check the seasoning, and serve.