I lived in South Africa for fifteen years and it goes without saying that there were many privileges to living in a country that has been described as one of the most beautiful in the world. The vibrant landscapes and incomparable climate capture the soul like no other place. On the Highveld, April is often regarded as the perfect time of year. It marks the change of season, as the long summer rolls lazily into autumn. Dramatic thunderstorms are replaced by months of unblemished blue skies. Living in Johannesburg, I loved this time of year. Yet a small part of me hankered for the rambling simplicity of the English countryside. Robert Browning’s famous poem “Home Thoughts from Abroad” would reel around in my head and I’d ungratefully yearn “to be in England, now that April’s there”.
Now that I’m in England and April’s here, I’m not taking it for granted. The bliss of daylight saving is still a novelty. Every evening we walk up to the heath, letting the puppy run free, while we scout for the first of the bluebells. Then just as the sun is setting we amble home to a simple supper of spring luxuries, like watercress and wild garlic.
The menu below is my ode to April in England, with some of my favourite Spring ingredients to blow away the post-winter chill.
Palmiers (or French Hearts)
This is a savoury version of the classic french heart. It’s the perfect pre-dinner nibble and even better when served with a glass of champagne. I sometimes like to make a double batch, freezing half of the log, which can then be sliced and baked when unexpected visitors arrive.
Ingredients (makes about 35)
300g Puff Pastry, 2 tablespoons of of grainy mustard, 3 handfuls of gruyere (or a similar strong hard cheese)
Roll the pastry into a rectangle about half a centimetre in thickness. Spread the mustard over the pastry, making sure to reach all the corners. sprinkle over the cheese. Take one side of the rectangle and roll into the centre and do the same with the other side. Wrap the log tightly in cling film and place in the fridge to chill for half an hour or so. When its ready, slice the log into roughly 35 one centimetre slices, and place on a baking tray.
Bake the Palmiers for 10 minutes, until golden brown. They are best served slightly warm.
I managed to pick up armfuls of watercress at my village market last week and turned it into a fresh and peppery soup, perfect for a starter.
Ingredients (serves 4)
1 tablespoon olive oil, knob of butter, 1 large potato (peeled and chopped), 1 white onion (peeled and chopped), 400g watercress, 350ml vegetable or chicken stock, 300ml full cream milk, lemon juice, dollop of creme fraiche
Heat the olive oil and butter and sweat the onion until translucent, Add the potato and cook for 4 minutes, without allowing it to brown. Add the stock and simmer until the potato is tender. Roughly chop the watercress and add to the pan. Take off the heat and allow to cool slightly, before transferring to a food processor to blend until smooth.
Transfer back to the saucepan and add the milk to create a creamy consistency. Bring to simmering point and then remove from the heat. Add a little lemon juice and season to taste.
Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche and some leftover sprigs of watercress.
Duck Breast with Baked New Potatoes, Sprouting Broccoli and Red Wine Jus
Sprouting broccoli appears when the field harvest is sparse. One of the earliest types is “White Eye”, a tasty, greeny-white variety less abundant than its purple cousins. Jersey Royal New Potatoes are a seasonal gem. The early season potatoes are smaller, but have bags of flavour. To make a change from the usual roast potatoes doused in goose fat, I like to bake new potatoes in a little olive oil, leaving the skins on, as much of the goodness lies just beneath the surface.
Ingredients (serves 4)
For the duck:
4 large Gressingham Duck Breasts with skin on, Salt and Pepper
For the Potatoes:
15 – 20 new potatoes (I used Jersey Royal), drizzle of Olive Oil, Salt and Pepper
For the Brocolli
3 big handfuls of sprouting broccoli, A handful of Chopped Hazelnuts, The juice of one lemon
For the Red Wine Jus
Two large glasses of full-bodied red wine, 3 garlic cloves (peeled), 1 bay leaf, 1 onion (chopped in half), 200ml chicken or vegetable stock
Heat the oven to 190C. Place the new potatoes in a baking tray. Drizzle over a generous glug of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes until the potatoes are golden brown and slightly crispy.
Place the wine, stock, bay leaf, garlic and onion into a saucepan over low heat and reduce gently for 30 minutes until slightly thickened.
Score the duck skin and rub salt and pepper on both sides of the breast. Heat a frying pan over a high heat, when the pan is very hot (that you can’t even hold your hand above it) place the duck breasts in the pan, skin side down, and turn the heat down slightly. Fry the breast for 4-5 minutes on both sides, until golden brown and cooked to your liking. Once the duck breast are cooked, remove from the pan, wrap loosely in foil and allow to rest for about 5-10 minutes.
Meanwhile steam the broccoli for about 4 minutes, until tender, but not too soft. Transfer the cooked broccoli to a serving plate, squeeze over the lemon and sprinkle with the chopped hazelnuts.
Sieve the red wine jus and transfer to a jug.
Poached Rhubarb with Grand Marnier Cream
Apparently forced rhubarb grows so quickly that you can actually hear it. It’s available early in the year and usually comes from the rhubarb triangle in west Yorkshire. The forced variety, grown in the dark with heat, tends to be the sweetest and most tender. With exposure to light, the stems become tougher and tarter.
Ingredients (Serves 4)
For the Rhubarb:
Juice and Zest of 3 oranges, 5 rhubarb stems, 3cm piece of stem ginger (thinly sliced), 2 tablespoons of muscovado sugar
For the Cream:
300ml double cream, 3 tablespoons of Grand Marnier (or white wine), 100g caster sugar
Preheat the oven to 190C. Warm the orange juice in a pan and melt the sugar. Cut the rhubarb stems into 4cm long chunks and arrange in a shallow oven-proof dish. Pour the warm liquid over the the rhubarb and scatter over the orange zest and ginger. Cover and bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, Beat the cream, caster sugar and Grand Marnier in a bowl until thick and creamy.
Serve the cream with the rhubarb, a drizzle of the juice and a sprinkle of toasted almonds.