Market gardeners have a hard enough time of things without having temptation put in their way. For several generations they have been happy for English asparagus to have an intense six-week season (1 May to Midsummer's Day), but the lure of extra income is changing the ground rules. The companies that air-freight asparagus from Israel, Peru or California to satisfy the supermarkets' demand for out-of-season spears haven't helped, and neither has the sharp practice of the Californian growers (they make a killing by shipping vast amounts of flabby asparagus into the British wholesale markets in the weeks preceding the English season). The end result is that an increasing number of growers are tempted into plonking a polytunnel over the asparagus beds in a bid to bring the crop forward. I know my colleague Mark Hix likes to celebrate the season as early as possible, but I find forced asparagus inferior to the traditional crop.
A member of the lily family, asparagus is a strange vegetable. It grows so quickly (as much as 25cm in 24 hours) that it needs cutting daily and after six weeks the main plant is exhausted and needs to be left to gather its strength for next year. There is no way to make it provide more shoots for a second crop. This drawback is compounded by the fact that spears left uncut go remarkably tough remarkably quickly and, as yet, no one has developed a way of harvesting the crop mechanically.
The best asparagus always has to be grown quickly in the open air, then cut by hand and eaten as soon as possible. This makes it a short-lived, labour-intensive delicacy, and one that is doomed to remain expensive. But for texture and flavour, English asparagus sets the gold standard. The French may enjoy the heavy purplish, rather bland, spears from Argenteuil; the Germans will make a case for their thick and mushy white asparagus; and the Italians consider their very thin wild asparagus a delicacy, but for once British growers have something that is both unique and the best in the world. Which makes it all the more galling that they're prepared to compromise quality to cash-in early. Let this be the year that you wait for May Day and ignore your greengrocer's pre-season blandishments.
Pick of the bunch
There is more asparagus grown in the Vale of Evesham than anywhere else in England and at Bretforton, Worcs they hold an annual asparagus festival. The climax is the asparagus auction at the National Trust's only pub, the 650-year-old Fleece Inn. The asparagus is sold in giant bundles and the proceeds go towards the Bretforton Silver Band. As with most charity auctions, bidding can get out of hand and in past years the price for a single round has been as much as £700. The festival runs from 24-26 May.
The Fleece Inn, Bretforton, nr Evesham, Worcs (01386 831173); british-asparagus.co.uk