Asparagus tips; eating in

You have six weeks to sample the most delicious vegetable that spring has to offer. But, says Michael Bateman, you've got to know how to cook it
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The Independent Culture
THE VALE of Evesham is famous for its asparagus, and with good reason. It is blessed with the perfect soil for growing it: a thick carpet of sandy loam resulting from thousands of years of erosion of the Cotswold stone valley floor. The loose consistency of the soil eases the path of the new season's "Grass", or "Aspara-grass", as they call it here.

Charlie Webb, a leading fruit and vegetable wholesaler who was born in Evesham Manor 65 years ago, has no doubt that Vale of Evesham asparagus is the best in the world. He remembers the village, Hinton-on-the-Green, where he grew up, as a place where everyone worked on the land and every family had their own asparagus bed. "Asparagus grows more slowly here because of the climate," he says, "and this gives it more flavour. This year's crop is particularly good as there has been plenty of winter rain."

It's a labour-intensive crop, requiring great care and regular weeding. The shoots must be cut every day from now until 21 June, the traditional end of the season. This is a highly-skilled job - the pickers can't see the root base they're cutting, yet have to avoid damaging the root system.

The start of the British asparagus season has always been an exciting event, an excuse for every restaurant and hotel to put on a spring menu. The mouth waters at the thought of those tender spears served warm with a buttery hollandaise sauce, or cold with vinaigrette, or fashioned into tarts, omelettes, souffles and soups.

But we live in a world in which our sense of anticipation is dulled by a continuous, global supply. Supermarkets chase this spring vegetable around the globe. When it's autumn here, we eat Chile's spring shoots. At Christmas it is flown in from New Zealand and southern Africa. In the New Year it arrives from Mexico and southern California. And then we catch up with spring in the Mediterranean: we've been eating Spanish asparagus for the last month or so.

Spanish asparagus is fine. But a bit of patriotism doesn't come amiss, and, having just polished off a couple of pounds of fresh Evesham asparagus, I agree with Charlie. Ours is best. It's sweeter, tastier, with a great depth of delicate flavour. And, of course, freshness is important. The shorter the time from soil to table, the better it tastes.

Charlie's warehouse is less than a mile from The Lygon Arms in Broadway, Worcester, where chef Graeme Nesbitt has turned himself into something of a master in the art of cooking it. His asparagus menu lasts for the duration of the six-week season.

Graeme is a young Scotsman who received a strictly classical training at Gleneagles, Claridges and the Dorchester Hotel, but he debunks the myth, put about by many of his elders, that asparagus must be cooked in bunches in special deep saucepans, with their tough feet in boiling water and the more delicate tips with their heads above it in a cloud of steam. He boils them like any other vegetable.

Cutting the Gordian knot, Graeme declares that there is no point in cooking the tougher base of the stem at all, and he trims all asparagus to six inches or less, depending on their size. Jumbo-sized asparagus may need a little work with the potato peeler to get rid of the tough skin.

Graeme also heartily disagrees with experts who declare asparagus should be boiled in water for 15 minutes or longer. Plunging them into boiling salted water and timing them from the point when the water re-boils, he cooks them for no more than four minutes. He checks the tips are soft, drains them in a colander, and immediately plunges them into a pan of iced water to stop them from cooking any longer.

Once drained, they can be used in any of a dozen ways. Curiously, asparagus has almost no taste when very hot, so it needs to be eaten either warm or cold.

Cold asparagus can be easily warmed though in boiling water if you want to eat it warm with melted butter or hollandaise sauce. For the sauce, heat 200g (8oz) of butter in a pan and pour through a cloth to make clarified butter. In a double boiler, or one small pan sitting in a larger one filled with water, whisk four egg yolks with four teaspoons of cold water until creamy. Remove from the heat and beat in the clarified butter a little at a time until smooth, then add two teaspoons of lemon juice, salt and a few specks of cayenne pepper. Strain through a sieve.

Traditional accompaniments, used to provide text- ure, include fried buttered breadcrumbs, grated hardboiled egg (Polonaise) and, in Italy, grated Parmesan. Cold, there is nothing better than a good vinaigrette. Mix two teaspoons of Dijon vinegar, one tablespoon wine vinegar and gradually whisk in 100ml (4fl oz) best olive oil to make an emulsion. It will keep in a jar in the fridge.

Readers wishing to visit the Lygon Arms will receive a complimentary bottle of Sancerre and a round of Evesham asparagus, subject to availability, if they mention this article when booking. The Lygon Arms, High Street, Broadway, Worcester. Tel: 01386 852 255.

ASPARAGUS SOUP

Serves 4

Offcuts and parings will impart a bitter taste. You need whole spears to get the full richness and flavour.

1lb/500g asparagus

1 onion, peeled and diced

50g/2oz white of leek, roughly chopped

25g/1oz celery, roughly chopped

1 litre/134 pints chicken or vegetable stock

100ml/312fl oz double cream

10g/13oz dried morels (fungi)

Madiera for soaking morels (optional)

salt and pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

sprig of thyme

1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil for frying

If using, soak morels in a few tablespoons of Madeira for 24 hours.

To make the soup, heat oil in a pan, and fry the onions, leek and celery until soft but not browned.

Reserving eight tips for garnish, chop the asparagus and add to the pan, cooking for two minutes. Add the stock and bring to the boil.

Simmer until the asparagus is thoroughly cooked (about 20 minutes), and add the cream. Pour the soup into a liquidiser, and strain through a fine sieve. Season to taste.

For the garnish, cook the asparagus tips until tender (three to four minutes), preferably in chicken stock, with a sprig of thyme and a pinch of sugar and salt.

Drain the asparagus tips. Drain and slice the morels and divide between bowls. Pour the hot soup on top.

The soup can be served as an appetiser in cups with a cappuccino froth. To do this, whisk the soup using a hand blender before pouring it over the garnish. Depending on the size of the cups this quantity will serve about eight

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