From Friday, May 8, right through to Sunday, Antrim Castle Gardens will play host to the three day horticultural extravaganza, the annual Garden Show Ireland.
The programme is packed with events and there will be talks from eminent gardeners like Monty Don and James Wong, stalls packed with an array of plants for sale, a recording of Radio Four Gardener’s Question Time show, and a live cooking marquee with food producers.
I’ll be doing cooking demonstrations for the three days – all with a garden theme and some that include weeds! When I walk in a country lane, it’s like a supermarket shelf for me.
Dandelions, gorse, sorrel, clover, nastursiums and elderflowers all add a complex, tasty and fresh dimension to our cooking.
When I was younger, the verge beside our family home, was full of sorrel and small wild strawberries in Summer. Sorrel, or “soor licks” as they’re known, have a citrus zing that makes them the perfect accompaniment to oily fish.
In classic French cooking they pare it with salmon to great effect, but we tend to ignore the free food available to us.
Wild garlic is another example of nature’s rich abundance. Sheughs and rivers in wooded areas, often have a pungent smell of garlic in certain places.
Once you’ve got to know where this treasure is hanging out, make the most it’s limited season. The thick, dark green leaves have an intense flavour and are brilliant whizzed into a pesto that’s then fantastic with meats, chicken, pork, or pasta. It has a fresher taste compared to garlic bulb and the lush leaves add a piquant verdancy to dishes.
Serendipitously, this is also the time of year for asparagus. While wild garlic grows with abandonment, local asparagus is something that has been nurtured, pandered to and is only around for a few weeks.
It’s the diva of the vegetable world, whereas wild garlic will spread itself all over the show, like a money hungry reality star, asparagus is more of an aloof Barbra Streisand type.
The Vale of Evesham in England is the area where most of the new season asparagus is grown. The soil there is lightly sandy and the climate mild, making ideal conditions for growing this delicacy. It takes three years to cultivate a crown of asparagus and the picking process can only be done by hand. This is why it’s so expensive and maybe a good thing for the bank balance that it only appears for a few weeks.
I know people in this country who’ve broken their hearts trying to grow asparagus. Because asparagus is such a beautiful ingredient, there’s no need to mess around with it. You just need to peel the stalks and trim the bottom.
In restaurants, this would be the job of a junior commis chef and the trimmings would be binned. A few years ago I worked in Gordon Ramsay’s three Michelin starred restaurant in Chelsea and they juiced the trimmings, made them into a mousse and served them with lobster and caviar as an appetizer.
But that was a restaurant where waste management, quite rightly, was a priority and not always practical for the home cook.
You could make them into a soup, by sweating off an onion and a stick of celery in butter, add stock and bring to the boil. When the celery is soft, add the asparagus trim and cook for two minutes. Blend and add a little cream.
When I’m cooking asparagus itself, the less is more tactic is best. Sometimes I lightly oil it and sear on a grill or plunge into boiling water for about two minutes and brush with butter while hot and scatter with seasalt.
It’s great with fresh or smoked salmon but I like it just cooked, and served with a soft boiled egg and some fresh wheaten bread.
Wild garlic is lovely combined with mayonnaise to accompany fried fish. The recipe for the batter this week uses yeast – don’t be put off by this, it’s actually very simple and the resulting batter is light and flavoursome.
Hot crispy fish, dipped into rich garlicky mayonnaise is a simple joy only available for a limited season!