Dreaming spears: The wonder of Asparagus

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Indy Lifestyle Online

* The scientific name for asparagus is Asparagus officinalis. It originated in the eastern Mediterranean and now grows wild in Europe, the Caucasus and western Siberia. It has also been naturalised in the Americas and New Zealand.

* Asparagus was first used as a major food product during Roman times. A recipe for it can be found in the world's oldest surviving cookbook, Apicius' De Re Coquinaria, book three, from the 3rd century.

* A rough translation of the recipe reads as follows: "Take cleaned asparagus, rub it in a mortar, pour in water, filter through a strainer and throw away incomplete fig-peckers. Then grind six scruples of pepper, throw in one ladle of wine, and one ladle of raisin wine. Next put three ounces of oil into a stockpot and boil. Mix six eggs with the mixture of pepper and wine, and the asparagus. Cook, sprinkle with pepper and serve."

* Peru is currently the world's leading exporter of asparagus, followed by China and Mexico. The top asparagus importers in 2004, the most recent year for which records are available, were the US (92,405 tons), followed by the EU (18,565 tons) and Japan (17,148 tons).

* There are an estimated 130 commercial growers of asparagus in the UK, of which 100 are members of the British Asparagus Association, an organisation that pioneers research into new strains and funds the vegetable's annual marketing campaign.

* Traditionally, almost all of Britain's asparagus farmers came from the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire. Nowadays, there are also major producers in Kent, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire.

* To begin growing asparagus, you must plant a root known as a "crown". It must be grown for three years until a producer can begin harvesting. After that, a plant will have an effective lifespan of a further 10 years. Producers claim that this makes asparagus expensive, since crops are only harvested for 10 out of every 13 years.

* The British asparagus season runs from mid-April until 21 June. It used to begin on 1 May, but now starts earlier due to milder springs.

* Last asparagus season, British consumers ate 2,000 tons of the crop. This equates to 52,631,579 spears.

* You cannot cultivate asparagus until the soil temperature has reached 10C. Some commercial growers "cheat" by growing it under plastic or in greenhouses.

* If it were left unharvested, the asparagus spear would quickly grow into a tall, thin, fern-like plant, which is virtually inedible.

* During the asparagus season each crown produces a single spear. After a spear is cut, the crown will produce another spear, so single crowns can be cultivated two or three times during a season.

* You could, if you so desire, keep cutting spears after 21 June. But beware: too many further rounds of cutting will affect next year's crop, since an individual crown needs to retain energy to keep going through the long, cold winter.

* In Britain, most asparagus pickers are from Eastern Europe. After the asparagus season is over, most transfer to the soft-fruit market.

* On the second bank holiday in May, an asparagus auction is traditionally held in Bretforton in the Vale of Evesham.

* This year, Bretforton will also host the first British Asparagus Festival over the same weekend. Restaurants and hotels will be using entire asparagus menus, while visitors will also be able to attend cookery demonstrations and talks from growers.

* Bundles of asparagus are traditionally known as "rounds of gras".

* On the continent, they prefer canned white asparagus to the green variety. This is grown in the dark, usually by piling soil up over the shoots so they can't photosynthesise.

* This year, Germany suffered a shortage of white asparagus after the introduction of new labour laws requiring 20 per cent of pickers to be German. This led to an acute shortage of pickers, since almost all had traditionally come from Poland.

* In medicine, asparagus roots are used to treat urinary tract infections, as well as kidney and bladder stones.

* In Victorian times, Battersea contained 367 farm plots, many of which grew asparagus. During the Second World War, part of Battersea Park was recultivated with the crop.

* About half the population report strange-smelling urine after eating asparagus. This is due to sulphur-containing amino acids in it that break down during digestion.

* According to the British Asparagus Association, the vegetable is endorsed by celebrity chefs including Gordon Ramsay, Raymond Blanc, Brian Turner and John Burton Race.

* Debrett's states that asparagus should not be eaten with a knife and fork, but by hand.

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