We are in the middle of the delightful asparagus season. We love it. Green, white, steamed or raw, with a hint of butter or doused in hollandasie; now is the time to eat as much as possible
Nothing beats British asparagus. With a growing season that traditionally spans St George’s Day (23 April) to the longest day (21 June), it feels quintessentially native and provides a delicious, fresh, green vegetable with a distinctive mineral tang after months and months of cabbages.
First introduced by the Romans, this young shoot from a cultivated plant of the lily family came back to our shores in the reign of Henry VIII. Such was its popularity that by the 18th century we grew more asparagus than any other country, according to the compendium England in Particular.
What makes home-grown asparagus special is partly freshness. Growers testify that the spears taste best of all shortly after cutting, with all their mineral flavours and sugars intact. If you live near a farm shop or grower, you can enjoy asparagus fresh from the field; the best shops strive to get it on to the shelves within a day of picking. Go for firm spears with tightly furled tips.
The Vale of Evesham is one of the historic centres of cultivation. There, as well as the big boys, you still get half-acre growers who sell at the gate. Every year this beautiful part of England holds an Asparagus Festival that includes a charity auction. Held at the Fleece at Bretforton on the May Bank Holiday Sunday (this year 26 May), this involves around a thousand people cramming into the 14th-century courtyard to bid for “rounds of grass”, as they are known.
The highlight of the sale is a “hundred” of grass (the traditional 120 spears). These are still tied in withy stems (willow stalks) that are picked and buried underground over the winter to make them supple, then stripped to make twine to tie the spears.
Landlord Nigel Smith says locals know how to get the most from their asparagus crowns. “Growers get up early to cut it and sell it that day,” says Smith. “If it’s a lovely, sunny day you can actually see it grow. Then you cut it again in the evening.”
Asparagus is best cooked and eaten simply. You don’t require an asparagus steamer. Garden and food writer Sarah Raven recommends laying the spears in a large frying pan with a lid, pouring hot water on to the stalks and boiling quickly with the lid on until the spears go bright green (no more than five minutes). Boiling and steaming are not the only ways. Tossing the spears in oil and char-grilling or quickly roasting in the oven also works well.
Another traditional growing area is the north-west. Fields amid inland dunes around Formby (the plant likes sandy soil) used to produce asparagus for liners sailing out of Liverpool. The area is having an asparagus revival and the National Trust has set up an asparagus trail so you can follow its history.
One good grower near here is Andrew Pimbley of Claremont Farm on the Wirral. He says there’s a reason the season ends on the longest day: if you don’t stop cutting the spears for food, the plant’s ferny tops won’t grow to replenish the crown with nutrients, so it is ready to produce healthy, fat spears the following year.
Pimbley celebrates his crop with an asparagus feast and teams up with a Liverpool wine merchant, Wine Time at Scratchards, to try taste pairings. After much experimentation, Jon Scratchard recommends a crisp, unoaked white such as a chenin blanc or sauvignon blanc. “Oak just seems to clash with the flavour components in the asparagus,” he says. Lighter, fruitier reds, such as a good beaujolais, can also work, but steer clear of oak or tannic wines.
Sauvignon blanc is often said to have a hint of “cat’s pee”, which leads to a curious question: whether just some people have distinctive-smelling urine after eating asparagus or whether most or all of us produce it but only some can smell it. The intrepid may want to conduct experiments.
Eaters may prefer to discover, instead, whether asparagus is truly an aphrodisiac. Its appearance is suggestive and most plants grown these days are male because they produce the most vigorous, thrusting spears.
Furthermore, asparagus has a good whack of folates. Folic acid is thought to benefit sperm and is one of the few micronutrients recommended as a supplement to expectant mothers.
Given that British asparagus is so delicious and good for our health and happiness, it is encouraging to learn that 9% more land has been given over to the plant this year, according to the British Asparagus Growers Association, which has an excellent website for facts and recipes. Good news for those looking forward to summer loving and asparagus feasting.