|Risotto of hop shoots|
If I lived in Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire, Herefordshire or Worcestershire I'd probably be scouring the hedgerows for wild hops right now. Since the 13th century these English counties have been centres of hop growing, mainly for use in flavouring and preserving ales. Hops contain alpha-acids which turn sweet ale into bitter beer, a process first recorded in Bavaria in the 9th century. Commercial growing in the UK is now more centralised but I'm told by those who forage that these fast growing perennial plants can be found in the wild. I do know that hop bines grow vigorously and this 'cut-and-come-again' approach does no harm at this time year, and the young shoots make good eating.
April is the time of year when, apart from perhaps a few hardy salad leaves and some kohlrabi there is little in the kitchen garden to harvest. In my own allotment, apart from some overwintering onions and garlic, only a barely-there row of spinach, sown three weeks ago, signals anything growing to rival the weeds. The early potatoes, peas, broad beans and chard are at last in the ground but it will be several weeks before there is anything to show for our planting efforts. If you are impatient for the English asparagus season to really get going - there is asparagus around early this year but the flavour is not yet really formed - then look out for wild hops at market now (or in the hedgerow perhaps). Here is a really good YouTube clip to help you identify hops in the wild.
The top 10cm tendrils are what you need. The plant will continue to grow vigorously and be good for harvesting in September for beer making. Hops share some of the earthy characteristics of asparagus and, after boiling in salted water for a couple of minutes, are similarly good with eggs, pasta and rice dishes.
Nicholas Culpeper wrote in 1695 of the hops' blood-cleansing properties and declared them of great value in treating a large number of ailments - everything from ringworm to "the French Diseases". Hops were grown by the Greeks and Romans as a garden crop, the young shoots being eaten and other parts being used medicinally - as a poultice for boils. Much more recently, from the Veneto region of Italy, came Riso con i Bruscandoli - a risotto of wild hops. Claudia Roden, in her book, 'The Food of Italy', states that "the Veneto is richer in vegetables than any other region" and reminds me that Venetians like their Risotto quite liquid in comparison with other regions of northern Italy. After the excesses of Easter, a tonic which also tastes great sounds like a good idea to me. If you can't get your hands on hop shoots then you could use asparagus or broad bean tops. As soon as broad beans flower, nip out the top 3-4cm of soft growth which is so tempting to blackfly, rinse the tops and add them to the risotto for the last 2-3 minutes of cooking.
If you want to read more about the cultivation and use of hops in England I recommend 'English Hops' by George Clinch published in 1919. You can find all 138 pages of it here. It has a wonderful frontispiece showing a 1729 engraving of the "Hop Market in the Borough of Southwark" (site of the present Borough Market in south London) - close to where I buy mine today.
Here's my recipe for
Risotto of hop shoots
(serves 2-4 depending on how hungry you are)
1 handful of hop shoots (the top 10cm tendrils of spring growth)
30g of unsalted butter
1 shallot, finely diced
1 large clove of garlic, sliced
150g of Carnaroli rice
50ml of white wine (optional)
About 800ml vegetable stock
A small pinch of saffron (optional - it's more for colour rather than flavour)
30g unsalted cold butter, diced
Salt & pepper
50g parmesan, grated + extra for serving
Wash the hop shoots thoroughly and cook in boiling salted water for two minutes. Immerse them in cold water to preserve colour and bite. Heat the stock to a simmer and if using the saffron, add it now.
Melt the first of the butter in a large, round bottom pan and add the diced shallot. Cook on a low to medium heat until soft then add the garlic. Cook for another two minutes before adding the rice. Stir for two minutes to coat the rice and until the grains become transluscent around the edges. If using wine, add it now and cook until it has disappeared. Add a ladleful of stock and some salt and pepper and stir. Once the liquid has been taken up by the rice, add another ladleful and continue this way until the stock is used up and the rice is cooked (firm but tender without a chalky centre). Add the hop shoots, roughly chopped, for the last 2-3 minutes.
Once you start adding the stock, the dish should be ready in about 20 minutes. You don't need to stir the rice continually but do it often and towards the end make sure you stir it well. The consistency should be creamy but, in the Venetian manner, quite loose. Take the pan off the heat and stir in the diced butter and parmesan. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Serve with extra parmesan.