Spears at the ready: supermarkets wage asparagus wars

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Not since the infamous bread wars of '99 and last month's battle of the £3 jeans have supermarkets been engaged in such fierce competition. This time, however, the goal is to win the race to get the first British asparagus of the season on to the shop shelves.

Not since the infamous bread wars of '99 and last month's battle of the £3 jeans have supermarkets been engaged in such fierce competition. This time, however, the goal is to win the race to get the first British asparagus of the season on to the shop shelves.

Once considered a rich man's vegetable, green tips of British asparagus have seen a 25 per cent increase in sales over the past year, and the big retailers are keen to muscle in.

Traditionally, the season runs from 1 May to 21 June, but a warmer climate and increasing demand have fuelled the trend for ever-earlier crops. The first crop of domestic asparagus is now one of the most eagerly awaited dates in the foodies' season, and has been called the "new Beaujolais".

On Thursday, Sainsbury claimed victory, saying its Leamington Spa store would be stocking the first tips of the season from this weekend. Not to be outdone, Tesco announced at midday yesterday that its Stratford-upon-Avon branch had just started selling the "real" first asparagus.

But then, in a stunning twist, Marks & Spencer declared that it had been selling British asparagus since 30 March. It had been supplied with tips by John Chinn, a farmer from Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, who said he was "very proud" to have played his small part in asparagus-growing history.

Hugh Mowat, the M&S asparagus expert, said: "The asparagus is to vegetables what the Grand National is to racing. It is the queen of vegetables and now we are offering it to our customers for longer than ever before." Tesco grumbled that they were "surprised", while a Sainsbury's spokeswoman gasped: "Really? 30 March?"

The market for homegrown asparagus, rather than imports from Peru and Colombia, has boomed in recent years. A growing demand for "seasonality" rather than hot-housed foreign vegetables, coupled with the popularity of cooking gourmet dishes at home, has raised the profile of asparagus. Last year, British growers produced 448 tons of the vegetable, compared to 357 tons in 2003. The domestic asparagus market is now worth nearly £7m a year.

Celebrity chefs such as Raymond Blanc and Antony Worrall Thompson have joined a marketing campaign by the British Asparagus Growers' Association to raise yet more awareness of the green-tipped wonders and their supposed aphrodisiac qualities. A spokeswoman said: "There has always been competition between the growers to be the first to get their asparagus out, but this year we have seen this battle between the supermarkets as well. It shows how much interest there now is in asparagus, which is great, but what we don't want is for quality to be lost."

She sounded a note of warning that the products currently hitting shop shelves would have been grown under polythene tents, rather than left open to the elements. Growers are concerned that the principles of seasonality may be sacrificed at the altar of internecine warfare between the big retailers. British asparagus is considered to be among the best in the world, benefiting from a climate that encourages crops to grow slowly and produce tender tips. But growing a crop requires patience - plants can take two years before they are ready to reap.

Kent is home to many of the best growers, while the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire has a sandy soil that has also made it a favourite. Nigel Smith, landlord of the Fleece Inn in Evesham, holds an annual "asparagus auction" on the last Sunday of May and the first Sunday of June, when bidders crowd into the pub's courtyard and pay hundreds of pounds for boxes of their favourite vegetable.

He said: "We get people coming from miles around to eat asparagus. One of the bestsellers is simply asparagus with bread and butter and maybe a little local ham."So does he have asparagus on the menu for this weekend? Mr Smith sniffs slightly. "I will be waiting a couple of weeks before buying any," he says. "If you want really good asparagus, you should wait until the weather is warmer and the natural stuff starts coming up."

TOP TIPS

Best bought from markets for maximum freshness. Aim for the tight buds - any that have started to open will be less fresh. Asparagus benefits from being cooked simply, but it is also remarkably versatile. Pour boiling water over the stalks in a wide pan and cook for three to four minutes until just tender. Run them under cool water after cooking. Asparagus can retain heat for a long time and if left to cool naturally will be overcooked.

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