Spring is here and it is time to make the most of one of England’s finest spring vegetables, asparagus. Even though it is now possible to get our hands on asparagus crops throughout the year, it is the very short British season, between late April and early June, where the crop is said to be at its best. Over the last decade, British producers have seen a significant increase in the demand for their asparagus crops, with its sweet and juicy flavour being widely sought after across the UK and Europe. What was once considered a delicacy amongst ‘foodies’ has now become a genuine symbol of the British springtime. So what makes this once niche, and relatively expensive, vegetable so special?
Asparagus has been cultivated in the fields of England for centuries and in continental Europe for millennia. The Greeks and Romans are said to have cultivated it for medicinal purposes, as well as an edible vegetable. In medieval England it was know as ‘sperage’ from the Latin ‘sparagus’, although it was often more colloquially known as ‘sparrow grass’. Its nutritional benefits have been known for centuries, with its diuretic properties being perhaps most widely known, as Marcel Proust wrote in Swann’s Way, “…they [asparagus] played at transforming my humble chamber pot into a bower of aromatic perfume.” However, it is also extremely high in fibre and rich in vitamins A and C, potassium, iron and calcium.
There are three main varieties of asparagus, with each variety simply being known by its colour, either green, white or purple. Green is the more traditionally cultivated crop (grown mainly in Britain and America), with the younger, slightly thinner stems of these crops being commonly referred to as ‘sprue’. White asparagus is produced by using a different growing method, where the soil is kept around the stem protecting from it from the light, a process know as etiolation. This process of depriving the stem of light produces a slightly milder and more tender variety that is often preferred by chefs and gastronomes alike. Purple asparagus differs from both its green and white counterparts, by being higher in sugar content (and therefore sweeter) but lower in fibre. It was originally developed and commercialised in Italy but is now more commonly grown in France.
Growing asparagus is an extremely labour intensive business, as most of the work has to be completed by hand. Couple this with a harvesting season that is relatively short and the economics of producing asparagus become plainly clear, hence its relatively high price at the market.
The English Midlands has historically been a large producer of asparagus, with the Vale of Evesham perhaps having the largest collection of producers in Northern Europe. The Vale also hosts the British Asparagus Festival, an annual event that usually lasts for around a week, with many of the local growers competing for the prize of growing the most coveted spears with that truly unique flavour and taste.
Historically, asparagus has been a very versatile vegetable, finding its place in many a meal throughout the centuries. It can be boiled, steamed, grilled, fried and roasted, as well as eaten raw, making it perfect for salads, pies, tarts, stews, soups or simply as a meal in itself (with perhaps a little dressing). Break off the ‘woody’ part of the lower stems, boil for around 2 to 3 minutes with a little salt and serve with goat’s cheese and a drizzle of olive oil or balsamic vinegar. Alternatively, drizzle the olive oil over the asparagus in a roasting dish, lightly season, add the goat’s cheese and grill until melted and golden. When preparing and cooking asparagus, simplicity is almost always the best option.