A third of the way into my grandmother’s hand written recipe book, sandwiched between the ingredients for Sharp Lemon pickle and Seville Orange Marmalade are six drafted menus.
Each menu is allocated to a month and they progress from June to November. There is little there to carry through the hunger gap of winter. These menus are a celebration of British seasonality long before it was fashionable to do so.
Eight years ago they were described by my late grandmother to a curious, unmarried me as “the follies of a young woman, dreaming of grand dinner parties and playing house”.
My granny was wed on a drenching day in 1937 at the tender age of 21.
These menus were visions for dinner parties that never happened. Life, war and children intervened. In the years that followed my physicist grandfather worked on the Manhattan Project in Berkley. After the war they and their four children moved across an ocean to Australia. Neither myself, nor my father can conjure memories of cold cherry souffles or roast duck and apple sauce coming from her cornflower blue kitchen in Northbridge.
Within the book there are faint stains marking the corners of recipes for cornflake biscuits and savoury meat pudding. Those are the pages that fall open easily.
It was three months ago when I opened the book in London that I set myself the task of recreating those menus.
Last week as I was walking through Borough Markets I saw stall were spilling over with cherries and asparagus. I swung into action. Emails were sent to corral the other members of the ‘boisterous six’; an artist, photographer, film director and editor who have become part of our default family in London.
I began to research. And think.
The devil is always revealed in the detail. And while Granny’s menu is a seasonal delight, some of the recipes are stale products of the time.
The cream of salmon soup called for an emulsion of tinned salmon and cream. The 1937 version of asparagus toasts suggested tinned stems, drained and sautéed. The cherry souffle required cochineal colouring, which sent me into a google spiral of investigating insect-based dyes.
It’s the follies of a young woman, dreaming of grand dinner parties, playing house – and remembering the sacrifices of her grandmother with every bite.
(though it would be equally lovely for December for those in the southern hemisphere)
The lovely thing about this menu is that it can be easily increased or decreased depending on the size of the group. This one is for six.
These celebrate the excitement of English asparagus season. You could just as easily serve the asparagus slivers raw, just marinated in some olive oil and lemon juice- yet to keep some of Granny’s spirit, I’ve lightly sautéed them, so they present as a soft tangle. The two cheeses offer something to help glue the topping to the bread as well as a little bit of lactic bite. What is non negotiable is the salt, pepper and lemon zest.
You could make these up as ready made canapes, or you could do what I do with a friendly crowd and toast the bread, sautee the asparagus and lay them out on the table in platters, alongside the herbed ricotta and shaved sheep’s cheese. That way everyone can build their own in a relaxed fashion.
Serves 4-6 as starters with drinks. Pairs very well with sparkling wine and sunshine.
16 spears of asparagus
2 tablespoons of olive oil (plus a little extra for drizzling)
Zest of half a lemon
1 garlic clove
3/4 cup of ricotta
1/4 cup of goat curd, or Boursin
10 mint leaves, finely diced
1/3 cup of shaved semi hard sheep or goat cheese
1 ciabatta loaf, cut into 1 cm slices
Here’s how we roll
1) Snap the ends of the asparagus and use a vegetable peeler to shave the spears into ribbons.
2) Add a tablespoon of olive oil to a fry pan. Add half the garlic clove, grated, half the lemon zest and then half the asparagus ribbons (depending on the size of your fry pan, you may need to do this in batches. You don’t want to crowd the pan too much). Sauté until the asparagus is softened. Season well with salt and pepper and set aside. Repeat with the other half of the asparagus.
4) Mix together the goat’s curd, ricotta and mint slivers in a bowl.
5) To serve the toasts spread each slice with the goat curd/mint and ricotta mix. That base will help secure a tangle of asparagus. Top with shavings of the sheep cheese and more black pepper.