The sun has re-emerged and out we come, like worker bees. In the past week, overtaken by this new solar energy, I have forked over half the vegetable and flower beds, whilst Matt has hacked away at the brambles in the wilderness. The thick manure mulch that I put down back in November has hardened into a sepia-toned cake, flecked with straw, but once the fork goes in the soil beneath is light, open and moist. I am pleased by the investment of both effort and cash. As we work we are accompanied by a symphony of bird song.
It’s slim pickings now, of course, and will be for several more weeks. Had I been more organised I could have been picking tulips and sweet fennel at this time; as it is, I have only just got around to planting out the biennial honesty and sweet fennel that I sowed last spring. Last year’s sweet william are showing no sign of flower; for some reason, biennials behave like triennials in this ground – they take two years to get established and then in year three, we are overtaken by blooms. And speaking of biennials – I am leaving a few parsnips in the ground this year, to see what their flower looks like; as part of the carrot family I have high hopes for a whooper umbellifer.
I come home with dry hands, grubby nails and a head full of plans. The planting map from a few weeks back has been revised, drawn pedantically to scale by Matt using Google maps as a guide. As ever, I am wondering how I will fit it all in – but we will, as we always do.
The sudden warmth has transformed our kitchen. Asparagus is on the table a few times a week; there’s the salt-kick of anchovy and olive against the sweet onion of a pissaladiere; proper burgers and pink wine. I’m also thinking about ice cream. Is it too early in the year? Not a bit of it.
This recipe for chocolate mint semi-freddo comes from Rachel Roddy’s wonderful book Two Kitchens, which my friend Annette raved about until I felt duty bound to get a copy of my own. Ordinarily I would be excessively snobby about mint ice cream but this has been a revelation; using really good fresh mint is the key. What you get is a bar of frozen mint cream, chocolate and air: predictably enough, we have come to call this Fake Vienetta, which both over- and under-plays its worth.
Even if you don’t like mint make this anyway, because the semi-freddo base is sensational; just leave out the herbs and flavour with citrus zest, or vanilla, or you could leave the mixture plain but stir in chopped nougat before freezing. It can be served straight from the freezer and manages to be rich, light and creamy at the same time.
This makes a massive bar of semi-freddo, enough to fill a 1kg loaf tin; you could halve the recipe to make it more manageable.
From Two Kitchens by Rachel Roddy
The night before, warm up 500ml double cream with five stems of fresh mint, then transfer the lot to the fridge to steep overnight.
The next day, chop 60g good dark chocolate into a rubble along with a few extra leaves of mint.
Now gather three bowls and an electric whisk.
Separate 4 large eggs, yolks into one bowl and whites into another.
Whisk the egg whites until thick. (If you whisk the whites first you don’t need to wash your beaters as you go along, but work quickly so there’s no risk of egg white collapse).
Strain the flavoured cream into a bowl, remove and discard the herbs. Whisk until thickened.
Add 100g caster sugar to the yolks then whisk until pale and thick – the ribbon stage.
Fold the cream into the egg yolk mixture gently but firmly, then fold in the egg whites – it’s best to do this in two or three stages. Lastly, fold in the chocolate and chopped mint.
Line a large (1kg) loaf tin with cling film, ensuring that plenty is left to hang over the sides. Gently tip the semi-freddo into the tin, then fold the clingfilm one the top so that it is entirely covered. Freeze for a good 12 hours until firm.
To serve, slice straight from the freezer. No other accompaniment needed.
Also this week:
Sowing and allotment: More broad beans, more peas, sunflowers, and I’ll start the climbing and dwarf beans in the next few days. Direct sowed carrots, parsnips and dill on allotment, and carrots and lettuce at home. Also planting up pots for summer. Dug over much of the flower and veg patches. Planted out broad beans and peas. The first lot of broad beans that we direct sowed a month ago have not come up.
Cooking and eating: Asparagus. Proper burgers. Pissaladiere. Rock cakes and banana flapjack – nursery food, which of course Harry completely rejects. Joy of joy – rose wine!