English asparagus tipped for great season

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The Independent Online

The 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper claimed asparagus "stirs up lust in man and woman". Whether you are a convert to aphrodisiacs or not, this unique vegetable certainly elicits near orgasmic plaudits from celebrated chefs, is worshipped for its numerous health properties and has even inspired odes from one poet.

The English season starts this week and sales are expected to produce another record year with consumption of asparagus rising 50 per cent a year.

At the end of this month, the Vale of Evesham's "Poet Laureate" Mike Edwards will unveil his devotional writings following the annual Asparagus Auction. Meanwhile, folk ditties dedicated to the green spear will be sung during a week-long celebration, which culminates with the Asparagus Charity Ball.

Such revelling in the name of one vegetable may seem a tad excessive but the fleeting nature of the traditional season - from 1 May to 21 June - has long made asparagus a prized food. In this age of globalisation, supermarket shelves are rarely bereft of any fruit or vegetable. Asparagus - a member of the lily family - is now flown in from across the world. Peru, in particular, is the largest exporter with 73,038 tons sold worldwide in 2004. Just 20 per cent of sales in the UK are locally grown and, with such a short season and long distance for it to be flown to British shops, it remains one of the least environmentally friendly vegetables to put on your plate most of the year.

Local growers insist home-grown asparagus, traditionally nurtured in certain well-drained soils in England, is far superior because the vegetable deteriorates relatively quickly after picking. The chef Delia Smith claims: "English asparagus is without any doubt the best in the world. Asparagus has a painfully short season in England - just two months, May and June. So we need to be on full asparagus alert and make absolutely sure we feast appropriately and not let the season whiz by." Certainly, the supermarket giants believe that the increasingly culinary Brit is doing anything but ignoring the spear when it is in season. Waitrose said it was predicting a 40 per cent growth in 2006 sales of home-grown asparagus while last year Sainsbury's credited a Jamie Oliver advertising campaign with a 290 per cent year-on-year rise in sales from 700,000 packs to 1.4 million. Oliver insisted: "When good British asparagus is in season there is absolutely nothing like it." The Greeks praised its medicinal properties - particularly for toothache - while the Romans brought it to England, where it has been cultivated seriously since the 16th century.

Today it is recognised as a nutritionally valuable vegetable, a good provider of folic acid and source of potassium, fibre, iron, vitamins A and C as well as glutathione - a phytochemical with antioxidant and anticarcinogenic properties. A University of Ulster study earlier this year even found that it could provide a new treatment for diabetes. A more health-conscious public is increasingly buying asparagus with general sales up 50 per cent in 2005 and British growers seeing their trade rise 25 per cent.

As with strawberries, there have been attempts to lengthen the season. With modern growing methods some believe they can more than double it to 16 weeks.

Meanwhile, Nigel Smith, landlord of The Fleece Inn in the Vale of Evesham is gearing up for the annual asparagus auction on 28 May. An outsider from Lincolnshire, he said he was warned of his obligations the moment he took over the pub in Bretforton.

"People kept saying, 'Wait for the grass season then you will be busy'. I said, 'What is this grass?' It is the local colloquialism for asparagus," he explained.

The auction, which has been going on at the inn "for longer than anyone can remember", used to be a serious market for local growers but now offers them a chance to sell their wares - as much as £10 per bunch of 12 spears - in aid of the local Bretforton village Silver Band.

Mr Smith said: "By the end of the six to eight weeks it is available locally, perhaps you have had sufficient. But by the time the new season comes around you are ready for more."