A welcome hint of spring is in the air, but most English produce will need a little more time to catch up. Home-grown produce is still of a wintry nature.
Both fetch a premium this early in their season
Asparagus and rhubarb, however, are the noble exceptions – the very first asparagus spears from John Chinn in the Wye Valley are now on the market, over a month before the traditional season. "Mr Chinn has surpassed himself this year," says Damian Fowler at Gilgrove.
Forced rhubarb is also terrific quality. Both fetch a premium this early in their season.
For imports, blood oranges from Sicily are a favourite. Personally, I'm such a fan that they inspired a visit a citrus grower in the shadow of Mount Etna – more on that later…
For English produce, roots are king. Bunched beetroots, carrots and Jerusalem artichokes are all in princely condition. January King cabbages, with their striking greens and purple leaves, are still available, along with other brassicas such as purple sprouting, kale and cauliflowers.
From the Continent, expect salads including radicchio, lettuce, chicory and herbs such as parsley. Beans and peas hail from further afield.
For fruit, English apples are nearing their end. Conference and Comice pears are still on offer. All varieties of melons are abundant and from the Southern Hemisphere.
Raspberries and strawberries are typically from Spain; blueberries from Morocco and South Africa; redcurrants from Chile.
For something more unusual, Italian agretti – a succulent vegetable not dissimilar to samphire – is available from traders including S Thorogood and Sons and Covent Garden Supply. It is excellent cooked fast simply. Kiwi berries from Chile are another exotic treat, sold by London Fresh.
As for the blood oranges, the best are grown south of Mount Etna in Sicily. I visited the Marchesi di San Giuliano, an organic citrus farm near Catania. The main varieties are Tarocco (best for flavour), Moro and Sanguinello – the latter two are darker in colour and often used for juice. In recent decades, the industry has struggled in competition against 'blonde' oranges such as Navels, but they are no being marketed as more of a premium product.
"My family has been greengrocers for 200 years."
On the way out, I bump into well-known traders Andy Bryant and Maureen Peck, who runs a stall on Portobello Market. She describes how she now stocks a huge range of produce in order to compete with the supermarkets: "Gone are the days of potatoes and two veg – we need to sell all types of other gear now."
Andy agrees. He has seen the changes, for sure, having worked in the trade since the age of 12: "My family has been greengrocers for 200 years."