As the months of hearty roots and greens give way to our spring crops, the appearance of asparagus is the definitive symbol of change. For the last few weeks it has been coming from our grower Pepe in Spain, as a warm up before the UK season, which has happily just arrived. But why is it so revered? Its tenderness, sweetness and distinctive flavour certainly crank up the anticipation, but the difficulties of growing it should make it all the more treasured. It takes three years to go from the ‘crowns’ (the rootstock from which the asparagus grows), to the harvestable spears. Harvesting itself is all done by hand, as there is no machine precise enough to select the spears that are ready to eat. Maintaining an organic asparagus crop is also particularly labour-intensive as chemical herbicides are never used, and mechanical, inter-row weeding damages the rampant root system and randomly-emerging spears. Getting down on hands and knees is the only option. Having said that, a well looked after asparagus bed will produce a decent crop for up to 15 years, so it’s worth the time investment.
Most of our asparagus is grown by Clive Martin, whose farm near the town of March in the Cambridgeshire Fens has the nutrient-rich soils that this challenging vegetable needs. Traditionally the asparagus season runs from 24th April to 21st June, but last year it was the earliest on record thanks to the warm, dry spring, with Clive picking the first harvest on 8th April. Due to the cooler weather, the 2012 harvest will start this week instead, but that means the end date will also be pushed back, so you won’t lose out!
When it comes to cooking your asparagus, brevity is best. After washing and snapping off the ends of the spears (they can be woody near the base), keep cooking short and simple. Steam for 2-4 minutes, boil in a deep pan of salted water for 2-3 minutes (stems in the water and the tips cooking in the steam above), or roast with salt and olive oil at 200˚C for 5-7 minutes. Served with a touch of Parmesan, this is Clive’s favourite way of eating asparagus. Once you’ve enjoyed the purist’s version, there are companion flavours and textures that can move the culinary experience of asparagus up a notch. Visit our website for creative dishes like roasted asparagus with hazelnut dressing, asparagus with lemon crumbs or asparagus, purple sprouting broccoli, herb and mozzarella frittata.