On season for approximately eight weeks, asparagus heralds the start of the English summer vegetable season and it certainly enjoys its fair share of the culinary spotlight thanks to its great taste and versatility.
Dubbed the ‘Usain Bolt’ of the vegetable world, spears can grow up to 10 cm in one day. As such the plants need a lot of energy and can’t keep going for any great length of time.
The asparagus season usually begins on St George’s Day, April 23, but this year, according to local farmer Stephen Barnes of Birchden Farm, it has been a little mixed. “Our early site started just before the Easter weekend which was much appreciated, but our later site is yet to start. The mild spell in March got everyone excited about an early season, but I think the lack of rain in recent weeks has brought the season back to a more normal time.”
Stephen, who has been running his farm which is situated on Broadwater Forest Lane, Groombridge for nearly 30 years, says that whatever the weather they always stop cutting spears on June 21.
“The season comes to an end on Midsummers’ day and then we leave the roots in the ground until around September, October time to rest and grow into ferns. This allows the leaves to capture and soak up sunlight, boosting the photosynthesis process and putting sugar back into the roots.”
Due to its slower, cooler growing climate Stephen says that native British asparagus has a more intense, earthy taste to that of its foreign rivals.
Birchden’s asparagus is available for sale seven days a week from the farm, open from 9am to 6pm Monday to Saturday and 9am to 4pm on Sundays.
The farm, which supplies to local foodie pubs within a 5-mile radius of Groombridge and also a couple of restaurants in town, has 30 acres and produces 30 to 40 tonnes of asparagus a year.
Stephen, who also now grows pumpkins, says that he enjoys the ‘buzz’ around harvest time.
“It’s a time of year when spring is bursting out new life and colours in the countryside. It is a great time to be working outside. But the best bit is the buzz and excitement of a busy harvest and the joy we bring to our customers when they venture in to buy their first spears of the new season.”
Asparagus is the first real vegetable of the new season and tastes great however you choose to cook it. On that note, Stephen, who comes from generations of market garden produce farmers, says he is a purist.
“My preferred way of eating it is as natural as possible. Lightly steamed with butter and sprinkled with salt it is absolutely delicious.”
But whether you simply steam, dip it into a soft boiled egg, add it to rice dishes, griddle and scatter it with shavings of mature parmesan or snip its sheers into salads, it always tastes absolutely divine…
Asparagus is very climate dependent – the soil temperature must be at least 10ºc before it grows
It’s only in season for 8 weeks (23 April: St George’s Day – June 21st June: Midsummer’s Day)
The proper way to eat it is with your fingers according to etiquette guide Debrett’s – even the Queen eats it this way
It is part of the lily family and was called “sparrow grass” in the 17th Century
It can help to cure hangovers, protects the liver against toxins and improves digestion
Asparagus is known around the world as the “Queen of Vegetables” and during the British season we eat an average of 4.6 million spears a day
BRITISH ASPARAGUS AND PEA SPRING MINESTRONE SOUP WITH FRESH HERBS
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium-sized fennel bulb trimmed and thinly sliced
3 small carrots trimmed, peeled and cut into rounds
6 spring onions trimmed and cut into 3
150ml dry white wine
500ml good vegetable stock
250g British asparagus tips
150g fresh peas (podded weight) or frozen petit pois
5 tbsp finely chopped mixed herbs to include mint, chives and parsley
100ml double cream
A squeeze of lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Melt the oil and butter in a large pan. Add the fennel and carrots and stir over a gentle heat for about 5-6 minutes being careful not to burn.
Add the spring onion and cook until softened.
Pour in the white wine and reduce by half.
Add the vegetable stock and cook for a further 5 minutes on a low to moderate heat.
Add the asparagus and peas and cook for a further 5 minutes until tender.
Stir in the herbs and cream and season well with a squeeze of lemon juice, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
ROAST BRITISH ASPARAGUS WITH SMOKED PAPRIKA AND THYME BUTTER
Simply roasted British asparagus spears topped with a butter whipped up in moments. Great for sharing…
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 7-8 minutes
100g butter, softened to room temperature
1 tbsp thyme leaves
1 tsp smoked paprika
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 bunches of British asparagus, trimmed
Add the butter to a bowl and use a fork mash until smooth. Stir through the thyme leaves and paprika and season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Trim the asparagus and spread out in a roasting tin. Drizzle lightly with olive and season with salt and pepper. Roast in a hot oven (180°C fan) for about 7-8 minutes until just tender.
When cooked immediately remove from the oven and place onto a serving dish. Top with the spiced butter which will melt over the cooked asparagus.