St George's Day, veggie equivalent of the Glorious Twelth, marks the official opening of the British asparagus season. It's a strange alliance, you might think, since neither the saint nor the plant are particularly English but rather the product of the Roman Empire. St George's father was a Roman army official from Cappadocia; asparagus officinalis is a member of the lily family (along with bluebells, garlic and hostas) and, as with most delicious things in this country, was also first grown by the Romans, who cultivated asparagus in their gardens long before anyone else thought of it. By the first century AD Pliny the Elder, a big veg aficionado whose journals are littered with references to gigantic roots and stalks, was describing asparagus spears raised at Ravenna as "three to the pound", huge compared to the modern kind. By the time asparagus reached Europe (France in 1469; England in 1538), cultivation standards had apparently declined – in 1597, Gerard's Herbal described asparagus shoots as "being only the size of a large swan's quill, thinner than a pencil". Giant asparagus did have a brief revival in the 1930s in Argenteuil, once the chief asparagus growing region in France, when one M Lherault-Salboeuf manged to produce a stalk that measured 18cm in circumference and weighed 560g. Pliny would have been impressed.
Despite Salboeuf's undoubted expertise, asparagus remains a difficult plant to grow. Unproductive for the first two years after sowing, it'll spring to life in the third year and then carry on for a couple of seasons before the quality declines. You must grow it in raised beds, tend it like a weedy child, feed it the equivalent of caviar and harvest it by hand. Better perhaps, if you yearn for quantities of the stuff, to visit one of the asparagus festivals that take place at this time of year, and buy it there, having let someone else do all the work. Chief venue is The British Asparagus Festival which starts on 23 April in the Vale of Evesham and carries on for two months, incorporating an orgy of asparagus-related activities, including a rendition of "Land of Hope and Glory" played to serenade the first 100 shoots picked, and the Asparagus auctions held each year at the Fleece Inn, Bretforton when those hundred shoots, amongst others, are sold off to the highest bidder.
Although the rest of Europe still seems to take the Pliny line when it comes to asparagus size, here it is the relative thinness of English asparagus, or sprue (sparrow grass as it used to be known), that charms. Compared to the often grotesquely large, even suggestive, purple and white spears found in French markets at this time of year, the cool green slenderness of the English-grown variety promises a different pleasure altogether. For one thing, the taste is more concentrated and the snap as you break the stalk exudes an exuberant freshness (to trim asparagus, hold each spear between your two hands and bend it. The spear will snap at the natural woody point; they take barely a minute and half to cook); for another, you get more stalks to a bunch, promoting a benevolent feeling of plenty when you have a bundle of the spears on your plate. And the fact that the season only lasts for roughly six weeks, ending around mid-June, gives the whole experience an added poignancy, matched only by the equivalent brief delights in this country of fresh peas and home-grown raspberries.
It is the apotheosis of seasonal food. So seize these thin and whippy English spears while you can, and when you buy it, sniff the tips before you part with your cash: asparagus shouldn't have an earthy aroma of compost, nor should the "flowers" be open. It should smell of asparagus and nothing else.
Take it home fast, wrapped in newspaper, and consume immediately (like guests and fish, asparagus should never hang around). Eat it raw in salads by the handful. Or grilled if you must, or steamed, consumed with deliciously fattening hollandaise. Or, masquerading as a toast soldier, dipped in a soft-boiled egg. Otherwise, serve it with butter, melted and dribbling down your chin as you gorge.
It's not hard to find a decent recipe, though you might think twice before you embark on the anonymous chef's instructions on "How to Cook Asparagus" in 1845: boil in bundles for 25mins in quantities of water, 2oz salt to the gallon, dish up on toast that has been dipped in the asparagus water. PG Wodehouse would have approved, however; he liked his asparagus well-boiled and sent it back to the kitchen if it weren't.
Nowadays, you're more likely to find asparagus on the crisp side, in salads, or lightly steamed. "Dripping in butter and parmesan," says Jeremy Lee, head chef at the Blueprint Cafe in London. "I've just had some of the first crop from the Isle of Wight. It makes you smile it's so good; it's the most delicious stuff and a thrilling reminder that spring is really here."
In the first couple of weeks of the season, he says, "have it with butter sauce, mousseline or beurre blanc, or grill it with a squeeze of lemon juice and parmesan." But when the glut arrives, Lee advises putting handfuls into salads, "with broad beans, peas and artichokes, or into a fritteda, a Sicilian dish of baby spring vegetables cooked for not very long with onion, white wine and butter. It's a heavenly combination that goes especially well with pork and lamb."
Frances Bissell in The Scented Kitchen (Serif £9.99), a book about cooking with flowers, has a dreamily elegant recipe for asparagus with a subtle elderflower hollandaise, "the perfect first course for a summer lunch", incorporating a sauce made with elderflower vinegar, elderflower cordial, three eggs and soft, unsalted butter. Those with a wedding to cater for this summer might consider the dramatic recipe invented by Mrs Glasse in 1747; Asparagus forced into French rolls, which resembles in its finished form a bed of asparagus spears. You can find it in The Cookery of England by Elizabeth Ayrton (1975). For an altogether simpler asparagus supper, see the recipes below.
20 asparagus spears
4 egg yolks
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped out
500g butter, melted
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To make a hollandaise sauce, melt the butter and keep warm. Place a bowl over a pan of boiling water.
Put the egg yolks, vinegar and vanilla seeds in the bowl and whisk until the mix is light and fluffy. Take off the heat and slowly whisk in the butter, a little at a time, until all is incorporated. Season to taste.
Steam the asparagus until still slightly crunchy, spoon a generous spoonful of hollandaise on top and garnish with some toasted almonds.
From 'Matthew Bigg's Complete Book of Vegetables' (Kyle Cathie £25)
Asparagus and Ricotta Tarts
200g ready-rolled puff pastry, at room temperature
150g ricotta cheese
25g freshly grated
6 sun-dried tomatoes in oil,
drained and finely chopped
10 asparagus spears
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly chopped chives
Salt and freshly
Ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6.
Unroll the pastry and cut into two rectangles, each measuring about 16 x 12cm. Use a knife to mark out a smaller rectangle on each one of the rectangles, big enough to hold five asparagus spears. (Do not cut through the pastry.) Use a small sharp knife to mark the borders in a neat lattice pattern. Transfer the pieces to a baking sheet.
Bake the pastry in the middle of the oven for about 15 minutes until it's just puffy and slightly coloured. Then remove it from the oven, set aside to cool slightly and then gently depress the risen "window" with the back of a fork.
Lightly mix together the ricotta with the Parmesan. Gently fold in the sun-dried tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Trim the asparagus spears to fit the pastry "window". Divide the ricotta mixture between the two pastry cases. Place the asparagus spears on top and slightly press into the ricotta mix.
Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil and bake for 20 minutes.
Sprinkle the tarts with the freshly chopped chives and serve hot or at room temperature accompanied with a crispy salad.
From 'Buonissimo!' by Gino D'Acampo (Kyle Cathie £25)
For details of the Evesham Vale Asparagus festival visit britishasparagusfestival.org. Evesham Asparabus Tours take place during May and early June. To book call 01386 792206.
The Blueprint Cafe, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1 YD, Tel: 020 7378 7031Reuse content