Saturday, 4 May 2013

Rites of spring

It has been a rite of spring for some years: the moment when the grapevine relates the news that – whisper it with reverence – the first Jersey Royals and the first English asparagus of the season are available.

The pilgrimage is then undertaken to Borough Market, which is guaranteed to be the first place where I’ll be able to find these reminders of the joys of seasonality.

Admittedly they won’t be cheap, these first specimens, but they go beyond simply being food and into something special: they are the first concrete statement that spring is with us and there is no turning back.

Last year, that pilgrimage came at the very end of March.

In 2011, it was in mid April. The year before? Within a few days of that. In 2009 – 10 April.

Last weekend – in the very dying embers of April – some asparagus was available on Broadway Market, but it was poor.

So when The Other Half took the day off yesterday, since he was contemplating a braai for this weekend, I gently hinted that he should make the journey to London Bridge, where he could obtain boerewors from the South African speciality shop underneath the station – and then head into Borough Market itself to track down these seasonal joys in these unseasonal days.

That’s more than a month later than the earliest occasion in the last five years, and a good three weeks later than the latest. Which tells you a great deal about just how bad this spring has been – or perhaps more accurately, how long winter was.

Last night’s meal, of simply grilled lamb chops, with homemade mint sauce (a bundle of mint, leaves picked and blitzed briefly, with a pinch of salt, a good pinch of sugar and red wine vinegar to bring together), boiled Jerseys, and fine beans with English asparagus, butter and good salt, was more of a real celebration than anything that Easter could offer.

It had, instead, real, serious pleasure in the seasonal meaning that came with it: tastes and textures and colours that are utterly those of the spring.

This early in the season, you pay a premium, but by Odin, it’s worth it.

Today, on Broadway Market, the asparagus was much improved and Mark had organic Jerseys. The young lad serving me took my rather full bag and pointed out, slightly nervously, that it was not cheap.

Oh, I knew that. But sometimes you just have to do such things – and my soul has been crying out for this for weeks.

This is my rite of spring, no less. And such things have importance.

Not that it’s the only rite of spring I’ve been paying attention to recently.

For the last week I’ve been doing a job that requires concentration and patience, yet does not occupy the mind fully.

There are times when sticking headphones on and listening to music aids concentration anyway, but with this, it’s done that – and yet there has still been enough brain space left over to actually appreciate the music.

Since I’ve also been reading Bryan Magee’s excellent short book, Aspects of Wagner, old Dickie has featured rather heavily: various bits and orchestral pieces, a disc of tenor Jonas Kaufmann singing various arias – and the whole of Das Rheingold (Solti and the Vienna Phil).

But this also made me want to go back and revisit other composers – first, Berlioz, because I recalled a similar gut reaction to part of his Symphone Fantastique as I get with Wagner; and second, Stravinsky, because I wanted to see whether The Rite of Spring in particular produced a similar, primal response.

Well, I was essentially correct in what I remembered of the Berlioz (who was obviously influenced by Wagner). At least it was the certainly the case in the fifth and final movement, Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath.

In the case of Stravinsky, Magee says that he was one of the very few post-Wagner composers who was not influenced by him (although he notes that Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, had a picture of Wagner in his study).

But if one key aspect of Wagner’s music – and one of the things that disquiets some people – is that it gets you in the gut, as well as being cerebral, then the same can most certainly be argued of Stravinsky’s ballet.

A century old this year, its Paris premiere caused a riot. We Brits, of course, merely got a bit noisy, but it still upset the first London audience a few weeks later.

Now it’s entirely feasible that the prime cause of outrage was the choreography of Ballets Russe director, Sergei Diaghilev.

It is an idea of spring that is far from a European pastoral one: indeed, its subtitle, Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts, leaves no doubt that this is far from any Christianised vision.

Let’s face it – a young woman is chosen as a sacrifice and dances herself to death.

But the score itself must have been equally as startling for the first audiences – and even today it has a power that goes beyond concert hall politeness. It too aims for the gut; for the primal, for instinct within us.

In that sense, Stravinsky was following in Wagner’s footsteps, taking music yet further away from the church and from established religious conventions – and shocking audiences in the process.

I’ve been listening to two versions, trying to compare and hear the differences: first up is Kent Nagano and the London Symphony Orchestra, and then Simon Rattle’s centenary recording with the Berlin Philharmoniker.

So much of the piece suggests the angular and sharp that it’s easy to forget that there are passages of lushness that suggest a debt to Debussy, even though this is a long step beyond the sensuality of the French composer's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.

I can hear differences between the two recordings, right from the greater vibrato on the opening bassoon passage in the Rattle. And there are other moments where this new version seems to have layers to the sound.

It’s a good listening exercise.

And after that, it’s back to my own little culinary rite – which is probably every bit as pagan in its adoration of seasonality: more Jersey Royals, scraped gently to leave them in all their ivory glory.

Tonight, they accompanied some fillets of brill, which had been dredged in plain flour and paprika, before being pan fried in butter.

Keep them warm and deglaze with sherry vinegar or dry sherry, before adding orange juice and boiling quickly to reduce.

Serve with chopped chives and, optionally, toasted slivered almonds.

You can easily do much the same with any whole fish, including cod or pollock, simply adjusting the cooking time.

These are the tastes we’ve been hankering for for what feels like an eternity.

And on a day that has encompassed sun, wind, rain and even hail – as though this were March and April rammed into a single 24-hour timeframe – they are tastes that remind you that spring really has arrived and that there is no turning back.

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