There have been a few magical days of sunshine here and the whole world seems to have been out enjoying it. I am sewing name tags in gingham dresses and the bumblebees have been nosing in the planters. I drive through Hartington, hoping to stop at our village shop, and decide otherwise as cars are parked bumper-to-bumper throughout. Good for business, though, so I don't knock it. It's been a hard winter for many local businesses here who depend on tourism to survive. And providing homemade cakes and casseroles for the holiday cottagers keeps our village shop open for us locals, too.
I had decided on an impromptu picnic and hoped to stock up. So, returning home empty-handed, I decide to empty the contents of the fridge and go anyway. The best picnics I remember as a small child all seemed to involve my mother's vast collection of translucent blue Tupperware boxes with concentric circles on their lids (in various shapes and sizes) which were lifted out of an old laundry hamper. I grew up in a small village in West Cumberland (as it was then) on the edge of the Lake District, and weekends invariably involved a picnic in the Lakes. I don't really remember much of what we actually ate, but the joy of opening box after tiny box of delights as a hungry child remains with me still.
I empty the cupboard of all the tiny boxes I once used to freeze pureed mush for my open-mouthed babies, and build a small city of plastic on the table. The fridge appears empty at first, but once I start searching there are suddenly half a dozen sweet-tasting piccolo tomatoes, a jar of shiny purple Kalamata olives, a piece of Comte cheese hiding at the back of the fridge, a couple of cakes Hannah brought over the other day. Things mount up. It is almost lunch time before we are ready to leave as we are so late getting up. Luckily the ideal picnic spot is beside a winding riverbed just a couple of minutes down the road at Milldale - so we still get there in time for lunch. A throw-together salad lunch -it is the best picnic ever - which just goes to prove that the best ingredients are fresh air and sunshine...and the relief of uncurling after a long enforced hibernation.
If I had been better organised, of course, I could have made a thermos of your Cauliflower soup with toasted hazelnuts (page 194) that you have been labouring over to get right. But Summer came today and may be over tomorrow for all I know. Always a difficult vegetable to get right in a soup because its flavour is quite delicate, you say, 'the trick is, I suppose, to find a balance, where the flavour of the cauliflower is allowed to shine against a good, strong backbone of aromatics...but I do believe this time I have sussed it.' Starting with a base of fried bacon and onion, the florets of cauliflower are added with the stock. Your thoughts are that 'the problem all along has been cream...as soon as that is out of the equation , the little chou-fleur stands a chance.' With the thick, clagginess of the cream gone, there is suddenly more flavour to the soup. I like the sturdiness of the bacon and onion stopping any blandness appearing from the cauliflower. With cooler weather on the way I think a thermos of this on our walks may be just the thing.
Today you are making 'a warm tart of crab and tarragon' (page 195). Like me, you think the best and by far the easiest way to make pastry is in the food processor - it saves all those hot hands on the pastry. Made as quickly as possible and rested in the fridge it is simple - and always earns you lots of brownie points with your punters. Whether sophisticated dining set or hungry hoard of kids, few are prepared to turn down a good piece of pastry.
'Given the sort of glorious weather we have had this last couple of days, I use a tart such as this as the centre of a meal, offering a herb salad with matchsticks of cucumber in it on the side.' This would make a wonderful focus for a picnic, although just a table in the garden is such a treat at the moment when the sun is out. I am intrigued by your way of making a cylinder of pastry to slice into rounds and meld together in the tart tin. It certainly solves that unnecessary worry about carrying a sheet of rolled pastry over to the tin in one piece, and, as I've always thought, what goes on under the filling of a tart is nobody's business.
The filling is an unctuous custard, 'still very slightly wobbly in the centre', with tarragon, crab meat and french mustard, sprinkled with Parmesan. I am often at a slight loss as to what to do with crab meat. This is a tasty answer.
Here's to Summer - at last!