I am not sure why this summer seems so vivid, with each day somehow more beautiful than the last. I only know that is the way it feels. The days are moving as if each hour is two, and every detail – a salad, a bunch of sweet peas or box of tiny broad beans – is somehow more rich than it would normally be. It is as if the colours, sounds and scents of summer have been turned up a notch.
Talk to those who produce our food and they all agree it has been a great year for growing. A late spring, followed by just the right amount of rain and sun, has left us with some superb produce. Tiny broad beans so tender you could eat them pod and all; sweet little peas (they love a drop of good steady rain) and lettuces that have benefited from the cooler mornings and evenings. Those of us who like to cook with fresh seasonal produce are in a good place right now.
I made a sort of bean sauce this week with a base of crisp purple and white spring onions, broad beans and tarragon. I gave it a backbone of cubed unsmoked bacon and bound it with a little cream. I skinned the larger beans but left the real babies in their paper-thin skins.
This summery sauce would have been appropriate with a wodge of salmon, and I was sorely tempted to do just that, but instead I used it as a base for hunks of warm smoked mackerel. This marriage works on so many levels – the blissful combination of cream with anything smoked; the pancetta with the beans and then again with the mackerel.
Mackerel bought whole is more moist and creamy than those sold as ready-prepared fillets. Buy it if you see it. It is one of those endlessly useful ingredients to have around – for fishcakes, salads, mashing into baked potatoes, baking with cream and new potatoes or flaking into a rough "rillettes" to be spread on black-edged sourdough toast.
All smoked fish works nicely with these midsummer ingredients, especially lettuce and members of the pea and bean family. Chunks of lightly smoked salmon are good eaten with a mash of creamed fresh peas (cook the peas, chop, then stir into a little cream with chopped parsley and fresh chives). Smoked haddock would be a contender to replace the mackerel in my broad bean recipe, but is also worth serving with lettuce and peas that you have stewed together briefly with butter and a small amount of vegetable stock. Bread to soak up the juices, or at the very least a spoon, is pretty much compulsory. Anyone who prefers not to eat bread might like to try wrapping pieces of smoked mackerel in soft, pale lettuce instead.
The early peaches are at last arriving from France and Italy. I wait all spring for these fruits with their rose-scented juice. It is rare to find them perfectly ripe in the shops, so I make sure I buy them a couple of days before I need them. The old trick of putting them in a paper bag with a ripe banana to speed up their ripening works well, but I find they do very nicely just left out for a day or two. But there is no need to squeeze and prod. An unripe peach has virtually no smell; a ripe one will tell you it is ready to eat.
Anyone who has tossed ripe peaches in sugar and left them to marinate will know that rather than simply sweetening the fruit, the sugar brings all the peaches' qualities to the fore. But this week's peaches got a more aromatic treatment when I used an elderflower cordial instead. I like the simplicity of this ancient drink (you can make it with the flowers, sugar and an acidulator such as citric acid, though some recipes include lemons), but know it mostly as a partner for gooseberries. Stone fruits like its soft muscat notes, too – think sliced peach in glasses of Beaumes de Venise. A golden dessert for a golden day.
Warm smoked mackerel with broad beans and tarragon
350g broad beans, podded
1 large smoked mackerel
a little rapeseed or olive oil
200g pancetta or green bacon
6 spring onions
4 bushy sprigs of tarragon
150ml double cream
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Bring a large pan of water to the boil and salt lightly. Drop the broad beans into the boiling water and cook at a rolling boil for 4 or 5 minutes until almost tender. The exact cooking time will depend on the age and size of your beans. Drain the beans.
You might like to remove the beans' thin outer skins. I do this if my broad beans are any bigger than a fingernail. The easiest way to peel them is to press the cooked beans between your thumb and finger – the bright green inner bean should pop out easily. Discard the skins and set the beans aside.
Skin and bone the mackerel, then cut each into two fillets. (You will need about 100g of mackerel per person.) Break the flesh of each fillet into 2 or 3 large pieces then place on a square of foil. Brush with a little oil then wrap them up in a loose parcel and bake for 15 minutes until warmed through. The fish should be warm rather than hot.
Cut the pancetta into small dice then fry over a moderate heat until the fat starts to colour (you may feel you need a little butter here). Trim and discard the darkest of the green shoots from the spring onions, then slice the stems into thin rings. Once the fat on the pancetta has turned pale gold, stir in the spring onions, and continue cooking for 2 or 3 minutes over a low to moderate heat until they are soft but still pale.
Remove the leaves from the tarragon stalks and chop roughly. Stir into the pancetta and spring onions with the skinned broad beans. Pour in the cream, season to taste, and allow to bubble for a minute or so, until the cream just starts to thicken. Divide the broad beans between two plates and place the warm mackerel on top.
Peaches with elderflower and lime
6 ripe peaches
3 tbsp elderflower cordial
6 lemon verbena leaves or a large stalk of lemongrass
300ml mineral water
Cut the peaches in half and remove their stones. (I often retain a couple for adding to the syrup.) Cut into thick slices, drop them into a dish, then sprinkle over the elderflower cordial. If you are using them, tear the lemon verbena leaves up a little and add to the peaches. If you are using lemongrass, bash the stalk with a heavy weight such as a rolling pin to slightly crush it, then add to the peaches. Leave for 30 minutes in a cool place.
Pour the mineral water over the peaches, add the grated zest and juice of the lime, then transfer everything to a saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a light simmer and leave to cook for 10 minutes or until the peaches are tender. Chill and serve with some of the syrup poured over them.