Fort on food: vegetables

Fort on food: vegetables

by Matthew Fort1 May 2014

Matthew Fort waxes lyrical about some of his favourite vegetables, from the humble potato to curious mushrooms.

Fort on food: vegetables

Matthew Fort waxes lyrical about some of his favourite vegetables, from the humble potato to curious mushrooms.

Matthew is a source of infinite wisdom in the world of food.

Matthew is a source of infinite wisdom in the world of food. He was the Food Editor of The Guardian, judges on the Great British Menu and is a published author of numerous books. Matthew provides the team with much insight and is a regular contributor to our blog.

Matthew is a source of infinite wisdom in the world of food.

Matthew is a source of infinite wisdom in the world of food. He was the Food Editor of The Guardian, judges on the Great British Menu and is a published author of numerous books. Matthew provides the team with much insight and is a regular contributor to our blog.


Let’s be clear about which artichoke we’re talking. Not the one that looks like a knobbly potato, in fact, the Jerusalem artichoke is not related to the green or green/grey globe artichoke at all, (Jerusalem is a corruption of girasole – sunflower, their flowers are very similar). Proper artichokes are edible thistles, and there are two tribes of them: spiny, spiky ones with purple tips favoured by Italians, and green ones with rounded, fleshier leaves, favoured by the French. The Italians lead the world in artichoke and the range of artichoke recipes, frequently using artichokes young enough to eat whole.

They also produce an absolutely disgusting digestivo, Cynar, made with artichokes. As artichokes have one of the highest levels of antioxidants in plants, perhaps it has the same beneficial effects on your body as a re-boot does on a car engine. They also do mysterious things to your taste receptors, making it virtually impossible to find an artichoke/wine match. You might like to try beer with a suitable level of bitterness, such as an IPA or Worthington White Shield.


There aren’t many more heart-lifting sights than the first heads of asparagus poking up through the bare earth. Goodbye winter. Hello spring, summer even. They are the sign that we are embarking on the last great seasonal feeding frenzy left to us. I’m talking about the green, green asparagus of home, here, not the whiter shade of pale asparagus preferred by so many on the Continent. However, the asparagus season is now being stretched by the miracles of polytunnels and modern agricultural nous, and I’m not sure that this is a good thing. I don’t think it’s the rosy view of the asparagus of my youth that they tasted more strongly and distinctively than the commercial varieties do now. They had a distinctive, quiet detonation of flavour, that gentle roll of vegetal thunder. In the search for greater yields, longer seasons, greater disease resistance, growers have sacrificed flavour to the sacred gods of commercialism. The modern commercial varieties such as Gijnlim or Backlim come from Holland. There’s Millennium, too, from the USA and Stewart, a purple asparagus from New Zealand. Not only do I feel these lack the romance of Connovers Colossus and Jersey Knight, but they also lack the oomph, the weight to carry off a dollop of hollandaise. If all you taste when you eat asparagus and hollandaise is the hollandaise, then the dish has lost the plot as far as I’m concerned. NB. Wild asparagus is another matter altogether. Properly it is as thin as bootlace, as green as holly and flavour like a crack of lightening. When you see bunches of uniform stooks with heads not unlike hop shoots labelled as wild asparagus, put your money back in your pocket.


Whether fresh or dry, beans are legumes and there are more varieties that you can shake a stick at – haricot (which is world of beans unto itself, including, cannellini, kidney, navy and black), moth, lima, adzuki, mung, soya and the dreaded edamame to name but a few. The edamame, which threatens to take over as the pre-lunch metropolitan dainty nibble of choice, is vastly inferior in every respect, in my view, to the baby broad bean, shortly to be followed by runner beans, a very different kettle of bean, fresh, grassy, homely and ubiquitous.

Then there are the elegant French beans (which might well be renamed Kenyan beans, as the supermarket versions all seem to come from there these days). Finally, I can recommend a bean called Meraviglia di Venezia, a climbing bean which is as marvellous as its name implies, producing flat, flashy yellow pods of a wonderful buttery fruitiness until the first frosts.


Broccoli is the acceptable face of veg as far as many children are concerned. That may be because the version you see most frequently are those things which look like little trees is full leaf, with trunk-like stems swelling to a cloud-like canopy. These have a mild, universally acceptable flavour, slightly grassy, slightly mushroomy, slightly sweet. Much more exciting in my view are purple and white sprouting broccolis. I used to think of these as harbingers of spring, but these days they seem to be available halfway through winter. It may be global warming, or simply improved horticulture. Purple and white sprouting broccoli make a much bigger contribution to the range of flavours on the plate. They’re wilder, better defined with a kind of mustardy whiff. Actually, my favourite of all is the Italian cima di rape. It may be the exotic nature of the name, but it is both feral and civilised, and easy to grow.


Heston Blumenthal used to play a trick on customers at The Fat Duck. As a first course you would be presented with a little rectangular jelly one side of which was orange and the other purple. ‘I suggest you start with the orange,’ the waiter would say, and when you did, the ‘orange’ tasted of beetroot because it was made with golden beetroot, and the purple jelly tasted of orange because it was made with blood oranges. It was clever and delicious, and illustrated, among other things, the versatility of beetroot. There’s more to beetroots than you might expect. They come in a range of different shapes - ball (round); root-shaped (long and tapering) and tankard (long and not tapering) - and in a spectrum of colour - purple, golden, orange and white, each tasting different. And then there’s what to my mind is the most delicious of all beetroots, the Italian barbietola di Chioggia (beetroot from Chioggia), which is a pale blushing pink, with concentric rings of heavier pink inside, which has a delicate sweetness which is particularly tempting. Such variety begets versatility, and beetroot is turning up increasingly frequently in starring gastronomic roles.


It is anethole that gives fennel that distinctive aniseed flavour, as it does to anise seeds and star anise. Fennel is a plant of three forms: bulb; feathery leaves; and seed, In its raw form, bulb fennel has a distinctive clean almost lemony note. Given its deliciously crunchy texture, it’s a natural in salads (the Sicilians do a brilliant version with orange segments, black olives, thinly sliced red onion and olive oil).

It loses the sharp note when cooked, becoming wonderfully sweet and mulchy. The Sicilians are also very fond of wild fennel, which has a piercing intensity, and is used to flavour all manner of pasta and meat dishes. What else is there to say about fennel? It’s a pretty versatile vegetable. It goes particularly well with fish, both as a veg or with the feathery leaves flavouring the flesh. It’s very decorative in the garden. Italians put the seeds into sausages and the Indians put it in curries. And fennel is credited both as a diuretic and a solution to flatulence.


There is a part of the nation’s gardening community that grows leeks for show, leeks the size of cabers, leeks as thick as a man’s thigh (the current world record weighs in at 9.2kg). These aren’t much use in the kitchen, quite apart from the fact that their proud growers don’t really appreciate seeing their prize-winning exhibits turned into soup. Away from the cutthroat world of horticultural competition, leeks don’t often get to star centre stage. Oh, I know there’s flamiche, that admirable leek pie of Picardy, and leek a la greque, flamiche and vichyssoise, but these aren’t exactly glamour dishes. Marco Pierre White used to do a terrine of leeks and lobster at Harveys, but that was the leeks only burst of Michelin stardom that I can remember.

But there’s a warm, homely virtue to leeks. They’re a very supportive veg. The white parts go into making fish stock, and the green tops into meat stocks. They add their subtle notes and slippery textures to such stews as pot-au-feu. Welsh mutton stew, cock-a-leekie, and soups such as Soupe Bonne Femme and the Welsh cawl. The mild, oniony qualities of leeks underpin or knit together brasher and more obvious ingredients. If you want a demonstration of the versatility of leeks, you need look no further that the admirable Onions Without Tears by Lindsay Bareham, which deals with leeks inter allia (you’ll get the joke if you read the book).

Incidentally, leeks are a cold weather vegetable, enduring the chilliest winters in the ground with equanimity, but do not flourish in warmer climes, which is why it doesn’t crop up much in Asian dishes. And in AD 640 King Cadwallader led the Welsh to victory in battle against the Saxons wearing leeks in their buttonholes to distinguish friend from foe. Which is why the leek is the national emblem of Wales. I bet you always wondered about that.


Strange things, mushrooms. Wild ones, that is. You never really know about them, their coming or their going, why they're all over the place one year, and nowhere to be picked the next. And no-one has yet found a reliable way of getting the very best of them - chanterelle, cep, morel, chicken-in-the-woods or even the proper field or horse mushroom - to sprout on demand.

The cultivated ones may be more dependable, but they are to wild funghi what my cover drive is to that of David Gower. Those neat and tidy, symmetrically-capped chappies - button, chestnut, Portobello, crimini and all the other variations - that owe more to the ingenuity of the marketing man than they do to nature - are run-of the-mill, middle-of-the-road, commonplace funghi, decent enough in their way, but no match for the beauty of the wild variety.

There are hundreds of varieties to choose from, but only a handful are really worth the effort of picking or even picking up, and even fewer that will maim or kill you. In other, more sensible countries such as France or Italy, you can take your basket of mushrooms along to a qualified chemist, who will tell you what you can or can't eat. If you want to forage for your own here, get yourself a properly trained mycophage (mushroom expert) or at least a rally good book such as Wild Food by Roger Phillips or The Edible Mushroom Book by Anna del Conte and Thomas Laessoe, or it may be a matter of fungal Russian roulette.

Except for morels, which come in spring, mushroom hunting was traditionally an autumn pursuit. Nowadays, of course, the world is our foraging ground, and it's always autumn somewhere. Consequently, chefs can find wild mushrooms of some sort of other from somewhere or other. They vary markedly in quality. Anyway, none are going to taste as good as any you've found, picked and cooked yourself.


Potatoes – where do you begin? Where do you end? What on earth did we do before they first arrived here from the Americas in the second half of 16th century. There are almost 4000 varieties of spud, and they all derive from the ones first grown in Andes millennia ago. There are no more that 80-100 commercially grown, which is a pity because the diverse qualities of diverse potatoes matches those of galaxies and they are best for different uses.

Some are best for roasting and others for chipping. Some are natural bakers and others natural steamers or boilers. There are waxy ones for salads and floury ones for mashing. Some are best early in the season, and some best in the middle and some designed to keep all winter long.

According to Richard Corrigan, who grew upon a small holding in county Meath, there is no better way for keeping potatoes (and carrots) than buried in peat, which is what his family used to do. There rough round ones and smooth oblong ones and long knobbly ones. There are blue ones and red ones and white ones and creamy ones and plenty in between. In recent years, there’s been a race to get the new season’s potatoes to the supermarket, with Jersey Royals getting in ahead of Cornish Early.

However, I’m not sure that Jersey Royals are all that they’re cracked up to be, or charged for. I wonder how many growers still keep to the old ways, growing them only in specific sites and manuring them with seaweed. In the race to get in early and so charge premium prices, I think they’ve sacrificed that unique nutty flavour to vulgar commerce. Personally, I go for Cornish Earlies or even Cyprus Earlies in preference. That’s before my own. Sharp’s Express, if you’re interested. As far as I am concerned, there are few finer vegetables in the world than a new potato, boiled and eaten with butter within 30 minutes of being dug. You need no more than that on your plate.


Did you know that tomatoes have no flavour until you break the skin? That’s what the scientists say, anyway. Apparently, when you cut or bite into a tomato, it releases enzymes that go to work on the flavouring agents of the tomato, and lo and behold, you have flavour.

And what flavour. Some tomatoes are sweet and some are as tangy as an ocean breeze, some are fruity and some are meaty, some are sweet and tangy and fruity and meaty. Some have thick skins and some have skins as delicate as a butterfly’s wing. Some are flashy and some are juicy, some are plum and some are round. They can be red, yellow, orange, purple, purple/black, green, striped or monochrome.

The point that I’m trying to make is that there is a universe of diversity among tomatoes. There are something like 7500 varieties of them, and their qualities, if not their inherent characteristics, vary according to the weather, the rainfall, the growing medium, the sun, the warmth and the phases of the moon for all I know. So when I see the ‘Heirloom’ or ‘Heritage’ tomatoes’ on a menu, I tend to get shirty, because these adjectives tell you absolutely nothing about the tomatoes you may be about to eat. It’s just restaurant marketing-speak for ‘traditional’, but traditional isn’t sexy. And it doesn’t actually tell you any more than ‘heirloom’ does.

And if that weren't bad enough, then what about the moral and ethical questions growing tomatoes commercially poses? Is it better for the environment to grow them under glass here (heating, water pollution) or elsewhere outdoors and in the sun and face the transport footprint. Oh golly. Oh gosh. Decisions, decisions. I get round that by growing my own. John Baer, Pantano, Supermarmande and Sweet 100s have done well in the past.