Nettle & Quince in April

Drinking our apéro way through the (freezing) Hungry Gap

A few years ago, I wrote about the French tradition of the apéro. It was, then, prompted by the arrival of summer. This year, summer has had to be conjured early, yanked from the dampness of our backyards. We have wrapped up in blankets and huddled under heat lamps, basking in nothing but the warmth of finally — FINALLY — being able to be together again. Here in London, it was more than four months since meeting anyone but one solitary friend in a peripatetic walkabout had been permitted. When the cautious, minute-step by monthly-minute-step re-opening was announced, pubs were reportedly fully booked within days, months in advance, slots meted out in timed shifts hardly sufficient to meet the onslaught of demand.

So we relocated to parks and gardens, and while we may not have had the time — or infrastructure — to cook, we have been drinking. Together! And we’ve yanked apéros from the cozy armchairs of our living rooms, wrested them from those balmy summer nights, and settled them firmly within the dank, chilly English evenings of April.

But what was there to eat?! April is the deep pit of the ‘Hungry Gap' in England, a term that was on everyone’s lips last year when the first wave of the pandemic menaced/was rumoured to bring food imports to a standstill.

The Cambridge dictionary describes it as:

“ A period of time in some countries during the early spring when there are not many fresh fruits and vegetables available

  • Farmers call the March to May period the ‘hungry gap,’ when winter and stored crops are getting scarcer and the first summer produce is not yet ready.

  • Many of us are blissfully unaware of the hungry gap because the supermarkets supply us with imported fresh produce all year round. “

So what was there to eat, in England, in April? Leeks mostly, and wild garlic! Like bears lumbering out of isolation we found excitement and concentrated nutrition in the wild shoots piercing through the decaying forest floor. Wild garlic is sturdy and won’t mind being forgotten in the fridge for a week (despite the excitement of its arrival, this can happen), so if you suddenly discover a bunch of wild garlic that needs to be used up, wild garlic pesto is the surest thing. My ‘recipe’ (it barely is one) can be found at the end of this letter.

And then, somewhat magically, asparagus ‘arrives’ in England, promptly, on St Georges’ day, the 23rd of April, which is the official start of asparagus season. Indeed, as punctual as any Swiss train, the first stalks of English asparagus have been available for about a week. It’s all uphill from here!

// Things to make and cook //

The epitome of food for the hungry gap, this Leek and wild garlic quiche [N&Q] not only makes the best use of the lone green things available at this time of year, it’s also a perfect dish to bring along for outdoor drinks (or picnics)!

If leeks are all we have to eat for weeks and weeks and weeks, surely this recipe — despite its million steps and 2-hour prep time, you guessed it, it’s from Ottolenghi — these are the leeks [NYT] I want to be eating.

For more inspiration on leeks and wild garlic and other forgotten vegetables of early spring, the Riverford instagram account is a treasure trove of recipes, tips, and hacks. Worth it for the wild garlic salt alone!

But asparagus is already here, so we can make asparagus with burrata [N&Q] which will transport us straight into summer and which, incidentally, is also perfect for apéro!

I’ve recently discovered Jasmina + Stefano’s instagram account @breadandspirits — attracted like a bee to nectar by their Spritz con Cynar. I love the sound of all their concoctions, which often feature unusual spirits, like, recently, the bay leaf liqueur Dalloro — I don’t expect to get my hands on a bottle, but I may well try to make some myself …

// Things to read //

More about drinking. Punctually every Friday afternoon, Richard Godwin publishes his The Spirits newsletter, a fun and absorbing — and thirsty making — collection of recipe and musings and references about cocktails. It signals the start of the weekend in the most delicious way.

This article by Bee Wilson ‘Why spring onions deserve their name’ [FT] is a great read about another spring green which, despite it being another one of my favourites, I might otherwise have forgotten to mention.

In spite the promise of spring, the reawakening of the earth and the world around us, I’ve been slow in feeling the excitement. Honestly, I may have been languishing [NYT] — this article captures so well a feeling many of us seem to be having.

Apéros and bear’s garlic will surely manage to hurtle us into ‘flow’.

// Recipe //

Wild garlic pesto

A bunch of wild garlic leaves
Grated parmigiano
Nuts (walnuts, pine nuts, almonds)
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground pepper
Good olive oil

When I make this pesto it seems too fiddly to measure the ingredients precisely, but I do have rough ratios in mind.

3/5th wild garlic
1/5th grated parmigiano
1/5th nuts

Wash and coarsely chop the wild garlic.

If using almonds, start by chopping them briefly in the food processor before adding the other ingredients. If using walnuts or pine nuts it isn’t necessary to do so.

Place all the dry ingredients in the food processor and pulse blend, slowly pouring in a drizzle of olive oil. Continue adding the olive oil gradually until the ingredients have formed a paste that has the desired consistency.

Taste and adjust the salt and pepper if necessary.

Store the pesto in a jar with a protective layer of olive oil over the top.