FOOD & DRINK / Asparagus springs eternal: It's always cropping somewhere in the world. Now it's England's turn, writes Michael Bateman

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The Independent Culture
HERE IS a part of England where the wind almost never drops: today it sweeps in icily from St Petersburg. Here, on the flat Lincolnshire fens, some of England's finest asparagus is grown. The asparagus is as reluctant as the economy has been to expose its green shoots. Michael Paske, grower and importer, prods the dusty mounds of earth. 'It's too cold for them. But that's good; the colder it is, the more slowly they grow and the better they taste when we pick them.' We hurry indoors, frozen. It should be a very good crop.

Michael Paske imports asparagus from around the world so that it's in the shops every day of the year. Doesn't that make the arrival of the new season's asparagus a bit of an anti- climax? No, he says, hastening to point out that although imported asparagus is excellent, 'I deal direct with a lot of top chefs, and they all insist English is best.' Due to the cold, the bitter, bitter cold? 'Don't forget the soil. This is beautiful sandy loam, very rich. We don't have to add anything really, except some salt. No one knows why, but a dressing of salt helps asparagus to grow.' So welcome, English asparagus, and your brief season (from now until the end of June).

Michael Paske is the voice of asparagus and secretary of the Asparagus Growers Association. He was in his early twenties when he came into the business in 1964. It was still rooted in the ways of the 1930s: 'They were growing old varieties which had woody white stems about eight inches long, and were as tough to chew on as an ebony knife handle.'

He bought 100 acres near Mildenhall in Suffolk and planted it with Regal Pedigree, a new strain developed by his father, an industrialist turned asparagus grower. It had long, tender green stems and no woody bits. 'Sainsbury's bought everything I could grow, recognising that it was asparagus the housewife could take home and cook without the bother of scraping and trimming.' Later he began to import asparagus, and moved to his present headquarters in the fens between Spalding and Boston. Every day is a spring day somewhere in the world; asparagus is a vernal shoot. By September we will be importing asparagus from springtime Peru, Argentina, Chile and Guatemala; then in December from New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia; in January, Mexico. In February, Southern California. In March, Northern California and Spain, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

Not from France? Here is a curious phenomenon. We don't eat their asparagus and they don't eat much of ours. 'But this could change,' says Michael Paske. 'There's just beginning to be a crossover.' Most French asparagus is completely white, with a hard skin which must be scraped off. The flavour is quite different, too, delicate but well defined. 'It's an acquired taste,' says Paske. 'I'd liken it to chewing iron bars.' Yet it is not, as one might assume, a very different species. Its unique flavour is due to the way it's grown, earthed up in ridges, so that the stems are always protected from the light, or blanched. By and large the French, Belgians and Germans regard white asparagus as the real stuff for eating, and the green is used for garnishes and soups.

Nowadays all sorts of asparagus super- breeds are grown around the world. Michael Paske has chucked his father's Regal Pedigree on to the metaphorical compost heap - it yielded a mere 1/2 ton to the acre, where the new hybrid strains produce 2 1/2 tons or so.

Asparagus has come a long way since it was first enjoyed in the wild in Palaeolithic and Neolithic times. No other shoot compares with this unlikely member of the lily family (related to the onion, leek and garlic), although the Chinese prize bamboo shoots, and the Koreans eat bracken shoots. The Romans ate asparagus, but it was the French who gave the vegetable cult status. They serve it a la Polonaise, with chopped hard-boiled egg, parsley, and breadcrumbs fried in butter; and a la Milanaise, sprinkled with grated parmesan cheese and dribbled with butter.

There is an aspect of asparagus it may be indelicate to mention, and one I've only just discovered. The day after I cooked and consumed bundles of Michael Paske's Spanish asparagus, there was a smell of bad drains in the lavatory. I now find from Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking that asparagus contains an odorous chemical called methyl mercaptan. As long ago as 1702, a French treatise noted that eating an excess of asparagus would 'cause a filthy and disagreeable smell in the urine'.

Let us pass on quickly. The most important thing about asparagus is not the cooking method but freshness. It loses sweetness rapidly. Examine the base of the stem for signs of decay. Don't buy tired specimens, but if they do fade at home you can trim the ends, stand them in a bowl of water in the vegetable compartment of your fridge, and they will rehydrate.

In Britain we tend to like ours prepared simply; either served very hot or at least warm with butter or a lemony, buttery hollandaise; or cold, or nearly cold, with a good virgin olive oil or an olive oil-based vinaigrette dressing.

Modern asparagus is more standard in size than it used to be, and the stems need very little scraping or trimming. The conventional wisdom had it that you should tie it in bunches of about eight, and cook for 12-20 minutes depending on size in an asparagus boiler, the bottoms in boiling water, and the tops cooking in the steam (if you had no boiler, fashioning one with folded aluminium foil). The base should be cooked through, the tips al dente. But modern varieties respond perfectly well to boiling like any other vegetable, and are ready in much less time. They are excellent cooked in the microwave. Don't throw away peelings and trimmings, nor the water in which you boil the asparagus, as they make fine soup. Use any misshapen shoots in this way.

The most intensely flavoured asparagus soup I ever had was in Antwerp. The chef wouldn't give a recipe for it, though he explained it was only asparagus trimmings cooked with chicken stock, then strained. It was lifted by the addition of a Belgian groene sauce, a mixture of fresh green herbs, parsley, chervil, chives, leek tops, celery leaves with seasoning, pureed in a blender, strained into the soup and barely warmed through so as not to diminish flavour or colour. It tasted rich and creamy, but contained no cream or milk. Asparagus tips were added as garnish. Quantities are according to taste and availability.

The following recipe has the merit of great simplicity. It is a cream of asparagus soup made without cream, from Brigid Allen's Soup Book (Papermac pounds 9.99), published last month.

CREAM OF ASPARAGUS SOUP

Serves 4

2lb asparagus

6 spring onions

1 1/2 oz butter

1 1/2 pints water

sea salt

1oz flour

1/4 pint milk

Cut asparagus into 1in lengths, throwing away the bottom inch of each stalk, and any further pieces which seem completely hard and white. Separate the tips from the remaining lengths of stalk. Wash and chop the spring onions into 1/2 in lengths, discarding the green parts. In a heavy, covered pan soften the spring onions and the asparagus stalks in 1/2 oz of the butter over a gentle heat for 5-10 minutes. Cover them with water, bring to the boil, add a pinch of sea salt, and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Drain the asparagus and spring onions, reserving the cooking liquid.

In another pan, make a roux by melting the remaining butter, stirring in the flour, and gradually adding the milk until you have a thick sauce. Gradually stir in the asparagus water until this too has thickened. Add the spring onions and asparagus stalks and the uncooked tips. Simmer together for a minute or two, then liquidise. You can, for appearances' sake, reserve a few tips to add to the liquidised soup: cook gently until tender.-

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