From the kitchens of Lord and Lady Bamford at Daylesford to the of Rome, Clementine Hain-Cole has been on a journey when it comes to the discovery of seasonal cooking. Here she explains the joys of following the seasons.
What is your favourite season and why?
My favourite time of the year would have to be September, when the last of the summer tomatoes thud heavily to the ground, the first autumn squash appear at harvest suppers and blackberries blot the hedgerows. Should we bake apples into a crumble or eat them raw in summer lettuce? Is it time to pull out the woolens or take a final dip in the pond? Summer or autumn, it’s a wonderful time to be outside – or at the stove.
What first got you interested in seasonal cooking?
I wasn’t fully conscious of seasonality until I went to Ballymaloe Cookery School, where I was supposed to learn how to cook for the cafe I was going to open. For three months we lived off the land, livestock and neighbouring waters of West Cork. It suddenly dawned on me that the way my mother had been cooking all my life was called local & seasonal and was in fact not only sensible – we now call it sustainable – but the reason all her food was so delicious. We spent almost as much time at Ballymaloe in the greenhouse as we did in the kitchen, where we discovered the real source of flavour – the soil. Beyond cooking, following the seasons teaches you to appreciate the people who grow our food, whose knowledge and skills I think are far superior to that of a chef. From then on I sought out jobs that led me out into the open air – from the raised urban beds at Alice Waters’ Sustainable Food Project in Rome to the organic fields of Lord and Lady Bamford’s Cotswold estate.
Why do you think it is that we’ve lost touch with the seasons?
How can you tell a supermarket customer that the clementines they put in their children’s lunchboxes are really only a winter treat and that they should only be having blueberries in their morning muesli for two months of the year? We want it all, and we want it now. The demise of the greengrocer and the range of year round produce we encounter in supermarkets makes it very difficult to pick out the truly seasonal lines. We have forgotten what a sun-ripened tomato tastes like, the crunch of a September apple and the satisfaction of eating a pea straight from the pod. In Italy, there remains a strong culture for shopping in local markets where inevitably the local farmer bring what is growing in their fields right now. Unless we change the way we shop, we will continue to lose touch with the seasons.
Are there any Italian dishes you have discovered recently?
I introduced my family to puntarelle alla Romana this year. A relative to dandelion, in winter Romans slice these very thinly, chill in ice water to give them their signature curls and then toss with an anchovy, chilli and red wine vinegar dressing. A long-time devotee to Gentleman’s Relish, my father loved it.
What can readers expect from your column?
A slow walk through an Italian kitchen garden, with stops around the British countryside along the way. I’ve worked my way through various seasonal kitchens over the past few years, paring back my cooking as I go. For the most part I try to let the hard work of the gardener or farmer speak for itself, with little embellishment from me.
Read Clementine’s Seasonal Cook recipes here