We are now well into the hungry gap. The last knobbly celeriac helped stretch some frozen cauliflower purée into soup, the final half bucket of potatoes are beginning to sprout and I am left with a few small bags of broad beans lurking in the bottom of the freezer. In the absence of anything green the pots of herbs on the windowsill cringe every time I pick up a pair of scissors.
Northern springs are notoriously fickle and the impatient gardener can be tempted into rashness by a glimpse of sunshine and the exultation of the skylarks. The days may be lengthening but we are still beset by cold winds and squalls of hail, and cling to the optimistic delusion that “April can be nice”. So we wait, plot and plan, nurture the delicate seedlings, that desperately need some sunshine, and plant some more seeds “just in case”. With the dedication of the anxious the seed trays are watered and checked for germination and the row of young salad leaves is eyed greedily as we wait for the next cut.
Ignoring the siren calls of the phoney spring, the vegetable beds slumber on undisturbed, and we wait for the soil to warm. In one sheltered bed there is an explosion of life, buttery green, crinkly leaves, the size of elephants ears, and stems which glow like ruby wine in the sunlight. The rhubarb has stirred and is producing enough for the weekly breakfast crumble.
It will be a few more weeks before we can start to eat our own vegetables again, so for a brief spell we have to rely on the imported vegetables in our small local supermarkets. On principle I refuse to buy imported non-seasonal vegetables, such as asparagus or runner beans, and I’m irritated by the absence of UK grown root vegetables and greens. So I insist that we operate in extreme austerity mode, nothing (not even the most shriveled Dutch carrot) is to be wasted, the soup dragon has to be fed.
Hungry gap soup comes in more than 57 varieties and is based on lentil stock and imagination. Stir in the leftover vegetables that lurk in the fridge or a mix of stir fried vegetables, add some chilli, smoked paprika or a good slug of sherry. It can be dressed-up with croutons, toasted seeds and nuts, chopped herbs or even a swirl of sour cream. Cherish the soup dragon and austerity soup becomes a lunchtime luxury.
So while I’m pondering over tomorrows soup recipe and wondering just how bad the predicted equinox gale will be, there is just time to make some muffins. The vegetable store may be empty but there is always cake!