With most fruits and vegetables available through the year, are we losing out on the joys of seasonal eating?
I can never understand why people wax eloquent about mangoes at a time when litchis are flooding the market. Mangoes are all well and good: juicy flesh, voluptuous sweetness and whatever other nonsense that people spout about them.
But how can you possibly compare them to the loveliness of a litchi? The prickly skin that comes off in a tantalizingly thin layer to reveal the beautiful ivory flesh underneath. Flesh that is so full of juice that it’s an art in itself to leave it unscathed when you peel the fruit. The rush of sugar that goes straight to your brain as you take the first bite.
Litchis. There can’t be a better fruit in all of creation. Well, at least, I think so. And putting my mouth where my money is, while the litchi season lasts my dinner consists of a large – well, okay, very large – bowl of litchis which I consume slowly over the course of the evening to make the sweetness last just a little bit longer.
If there is one bad thing about litchis, it is that the season is so brief. And even before you have had anywhere near your fill of them, they disappear from the market without so much as a by your leave.
So while they last, I look for them wherever I go; but without much success. Hotels will send a fruit platter to your room with every exotic fruit from Thailand or even New Zealand. But litchis, that are available in such profusion locally? Perish the thought. Ask for litchis instead of mangoes as a dessert option in restaurants and waiters will look at you as if you are mad. Or worse, they will produce a plate of the tinned variety, which is to the real thing what Styrofoam is to blue cheese.
Partly of course, it is that the litchi is such a fiddly little fruit. It takes a lot of effort to cut up and serve. But partly it is that we have lost the art of eating seasonally – both in our homes and outside. Yes, I know, we all make much of the ‘mango season’. But such is our impatience that we try and pre-pone the season as much as possible by artificially ripening the fruit (no, it doesn’t taste anything like the real thing). And then, when by the laws of nature the mango season should be long over, we keep flooding the market with a late-ripening crop (yes, they taste pretty rubbish too).
It is the same with such seasonal vegetables as methi (fenugreek to all you Masterchef afficianados). It tastes best during the winter when it is in season; and that’s when you are supposed to have it: for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you are as much of a methi enthusiast as me. If you still pine for the flavor during the off season then you should pick the leaves, dry them and stock up in airtight containers for use during the rest of the year.
Well, at least that’s how it should work in a world that believes in seasonal eating. But alas, we no longer live in such a world. Methi now seems to be available pretty much the year around, if you are willing to pay more money for poor quality. As, indeed, are most other seasonal vegetables and fruits.
The times when our menus changed seasonally are over. Now, if you feel like it, you can pretty much serve the same menu throughout the year (and most hotels and restaurants do just that). The produce may cost a little (or a lot) more when it is sourced from other continents, indeed other hemispheres, but the same dishes can grace your plates come rain or shine. You can start your day with a methi thepla. You can have gobhi-mutter for lunch. You can feast on strawberries and peaches at tea-time. And you can have mangoes or litchis for dessert.
Yes, you can eat whatever you like whenever you like. But where is the pleasure in that?
You will never know the happiness of sniffing the aroma of the first aloo-methi of the season. You will never experience the joy of biting into the first tender mooli of the year. Or, indeed, of biting into the succulent flesh of the first mango of the summer, if that is your thing.
The truth is that everything tastes better when it is in season, when it arrives on your dinner table at a time that nature intended. And you appreciate it much more when you are eating it after a while.
An orange tastes most delicious when you are eating it after a gap of months. Apples are at their best when they are fresh off the tree. If it’s summer it must be watermelons, mangoes and, of course, litchis. If it’s winter, then nothing hits the spot quite like an orange.
It’s all about delayed gratification in the end. And the ineffable joy of seasonal eating. There is a reason why the Italians make such a fuss about porcini mushrooms and the English about green asparagus when they are in season. A pity we don’t treat the luscious litchi with the same respect.