Where there are vines, there are, quite often, olive trees. A number of The Society’s growers are oil-producers too and opportunities to taste the new-season’s liquid gold are a rare treat.When it is first released, just before Christmas, its exuberance and goût de terroir – a certain pepperiness from the Tuscan oils, more fruity notes from the Mezzogiorno, a hint of artichoke (I find, anyway) in the Corsican product – is at full stretch, and potentially a little overwhelming. Certainly a fine vintage oil should be consumed within the year for optimum enjoyment, but for me, the time to enjoy them is after just a couple of months in bottle, when a saucerful of bright green viscosity and a sourdough loaf make as sublime a starter as any culinary creation.
For people of my generation, for whom olive oil was for unblocking ears and available only in pipettes from a pharmacy, it’s tempting at such moments to be almost as green as the oil with envy for the rural Italian way of life. Guaranteed alfresco eating! The joy of picking a fig straight off a tree, still warm from the sun, and musky with ripeness. The delight of a properly sweet tomato, just off the vine! Basil growing like a weed!
But before we prepare to emigrate, let’s pause to consider just what we would be giving up here in the coming weeks. Our own home-grown asparagus, the best in the world, will be in season from the end of the month and, hard on its heels, sweet little home-grown peas and tender jewelgreen broad beans, all of which respond to pampering with this most essential of oils. So why not embrace European co-operation by combining homeproduced and imported ingredients in a simple but delicious dish while the pulses are at their most gorgeous? A non-straight cucumber would doubtless add an ironic touch.
- 200g freshly shelled peas
- 200g freshly shelled broad beans
- A small bunch of spring onions, peeled, trimmed and chopped
- A small bunch of home-produced asparagus, trimmed of woody ends
- A handful of mint leaves, washed and dried
- A handful or two of pea-shoots (available in good supermarkets)
- Fresh bottle of new season extra-virgin olive oil
Fill the bottom half of a two-tier steamer pan with water and bring to a rolling boil. Add the broad beans. Blanch them for 2-3 minutes, lift out with a slotted spoon and leave to cool a little. While the rest of the vegetables are cooking, slip off any tough or grey-looking skins to reveal the bright green beans within.
To the boiling water add the spring onions and peas with some torn mint leaves. Bring the water back to the boil. Lay the asparagus in the steamer basket, put it on top of the pan of boiling water and cover. Allow about 4 minutes. The asparagus should be quite crunchy in texture. Drain all the vegetables, season and dress generously with the oil while still warm. Add the skinned broad beans.
On two warmed plates, layer the warm pulses and asparagus with a little more fresh mint. Top with the pea-shoots. Drizzle with a bit more of the bright green oil and serve as a starter.
To make this into a more substantial main course, Parmesan, smoked salmon or cured ham may be added to very pleasing effect. In that case go easier on the salt.
The heavenly match for asparagus is dry Alsace muscat. A floral Kiwi pinot gris or a verdant sauvignon blanc from virtually anywhere in the world would be pretty delicious with this too.