Hurtling towards Lismore I am perplexed by signs, black paint on small white boards, which shout out SCORN. Scorn? A protest? An underground movement? Political comment? Then suddenly my head clears at the sight of a blotch beside the S : it’s sweet corn, of course, farm gate or roadside stall.
Sweet corn for my mother would be just another vehicle for butter. Jane Grigson describes the experience beautifully: ‘… one could not take to sweetcorn in the years of butter rationing. Butter it must have, plenty of it, to bathe the yellow grains and dribble down one’s chin, as one chews away.’ And yet I do not recall being served as much sweetcorn on the cob throughout my upbringing as the creamed corn that comes in tins, which my mother liked to offer her girls for breakfast, on toast.
Sweet corn is the one vegetable which absolutely should be eaten as soon after it has been picked as possible. (‘… botanically green, but… gastronomically ripe’, says Waverley Root). This is due to its highly efficient process of converting sugar into starch as it matures, rendering it essential to pick while still immature, at what is referred to as its milk stage. Mark Twain recommended placing a kettle of water in the middle of a cornfield, building a fire under it and, as soon as the water has begun to boil, picking those corn ears within reach and shucking them directly into the kettle. Jane Grigson herself suggests that ‘in an ideal world, you should put a pan of water on the stove to heat up, then go out and cut the cobs.’
So how fresh is the corn you buy in a supermarket? It scarcely bears contemplation. Far better to buy the frozen product if you cannot source it from a farmers market or roadside stall or, best of all, your own garden so the water is simmering as you extricate it from the soil.
Sweet corn, a variety of maize with high sugar content, is a member of the grass family. Originally grown by the Native Americans, it now comes in more than 200 varieties thanks to its easy hybridisation. Its fruit is the corn kernel; its entirety is called an ear before submitting to consumption, at which point it becomes a cob. Those delicate filaments which wreathe themselves around the ear are appropriately named the ‘silk’, and the tightly furled leaves enshrouding everything are called the husk.
It is the husk which is used for the wrapping of Mexican tamales, the little packages of food enclosed in dough, then husk, before being steamed. But it is the explosively sweet juicy little kernel with which, certainly on most tables, we are familiar. For a long time I was daunted by sweet corn, not terribly sure how to approach its preparation in a recipe that called for only the kernels. And then I found out how ludicrously straightforward it was: the simple scraping down with a knife to detach them, the inconsiderable amount of time bubbling away till tender in barely salted water. As it turns out it remains a vegetable whose form I prefer to be at its purest, the entire cob boiled for seven minutes, drained then enrobed in salted butter and, if I am not too impatient, a grinding of black peppercorns, then gnawed at in a primitive and undignified fashion.
You can of course do fancy things like flavouring your butter with chilli or fresh herbs – coriander is wonderful – or lemon rind, and instead of boiling the cobs you can barbecue them until they begin to excitingly char. Keep the husks on if you do it this way, first folding them back to strip away the silky threads. ‘You are supposed to get messy when eating corn-on-the-cob, and enjoy it’: there, we have Jane Grigson’s permission.