Once again we’re in the grip of high summer, that oppressive, impossibly hot and sticky time of year that can drive one to harbour shameful yearnings for the bleak midwinter. Or is that just me?
But there is a generous upside to the heat: February also offers up some of the finest rewards of the culinary year. It’s the month when all our anticipation comes to fruition – literally. In fact, I’d almost consider giving up meat altogether if every month was as abundantly loaded with exquisite things botanical as February.
We’re well past the pre-Christmas price hikes now, so even the most premium fruit like cherries and peaches are nearing giveaway prices, and are often sweeter and more flavoursome than they were eight weeks ago too.
If you’re a jammer, saucerer or any other kind of preservative, now is they time to buy up large at the farmers’ markets and get busy in the kitchen.
In food cropping circles “good for jam” is generally a euphemism for barely edible, and this certainly applies to damsons too. The difference is that the damson- a form of wild European plum – produces the finest plum jam, sauce, paste and liqueur you will ever taste. The sheer intensity of flavour these pretty blue marbles release upon cooking (or steeping alcohol) is truly breath taking, confounding even in its complexity and richness, sharpness, and deep, silken plumminess.
Seek them out at farmers market, neighbours gardens or if you’re clever and lucky-your own back yard. Well up on my best of the year list.
… as opposed to those flaccidly flavoured greenhouse grown stand-ins we’re forced to endure for the rest of the year. Unless you grow or get hold of a serous motherload of these fleeting beauties, they’re just too good for rough-and-ready sauces. For me, summer tomatoes deserve a bit of tenderness. Make them the stars of a classic margarita pizza, old fashioned and shamelessly messy tomatoes sandwiches, or sprinkle with great local olive oil, white wine vinegar, and crisp salt flakes to make the perfect tomato salad. Pure, unfettered summery bliss.
Outdoor tomatoes are usually only available from farmers’ markets. Flavoursome and often luridly coloured heritage varieties tend to dominate. If you know of a supermarket selling outdoor tomatoes let us know
I don’t know how rock melon farmers make any money at all. The plants are sulky, disease prone, glutinous drinkers, slow to produce and not very productive when they do. But somehow, rock melons are dirt cheap and piled sky-high in the shops right now. Go figure.
Choose rock melons with your nose. The fragrance coming from the stem end should nearly bowl you over, and the rind should give a little when gently pressed. Avoid any that smell even faintly of acetone (nail polish remover) – this is a sign of an overripe melon, which is not a nice thing at all.
Rock melons are great straight from the fridge and just as they come (well minus the seeds, maybe) on a hot night, in smoothies (with lime juice and a little mint), gelato or sorbet and of course served with generous folds of prosciutto crudo
People bang on about Golden Queen peaches, but personally I can take or leave them. For me there is no peach but the white peach (and maybe the Black Boy later in the season). Tree-ripened white peaches overwhelm with their fragrance, stupefy with their flavour and drown with their juiciness. They’re the peach you always hope for but very rarely get.
As with so many of this month’s highlights, you’ll be hard pressed to find a good specimen in a supermarket. The fragility and blink-and-you’ll-miss it shelf life of a tree ripened peach or nectarine means they are the exclusive domains of the farmer’s market, roadside stall and home gardener.
White peaches are at their best sun-warmed and straight from the tree. Yes, you can bake with them, but you really shouldn’t. Wait for the Golden Queens to come in for that sort of brutality
This classic Venetian cocktail is made by pushing peeled white peaches through a sieve and mixing with 2:3 parts prosecco or super dry methode. Too good for words… seriously, just so good.
The gorgeous yellow-and-red-blushed Rainier cherry has a woefully short season, but they’re possibly the best tasting of an already delectable lot. Late-fruiting cherries are always sweeter than (and cheaper, by a country mile) their pre-Christmas counterparts. Longer in the sun means more sugar and more flavour. Although lacking classic cherry looks, Rainer have a more distinctly cherry flavour than most other sweet cherries. If you only buy one case of cherries before the season comes to a grinding halt (any day now if truth be known), make it Rainier.
Unless you own an orchard, Rainier are too pricey and perfectly formed for jams, sauces or pickles.
Serve at room temperature to fully appreciate their unique flavour, or frozen for a chewy, cooling treat.
Also in store this month:
Blueberries, raspberries, Kiwiberries, plums, beans, sweet corn, zucchini, aubergine, onions, spring onions, garlic, capsicums, chillies, cucumber, kumikumi, early apples, nectarines, passion fruit, grapes, basil, dill, coriander, honey, butternut, dragon fruit, strawberries (going…going…), Flatto peaches, blackberries.
Lychee, pomegranates, pears, limes, oranges, mandarins, pomelo, papaya, pineapple, plantains,