Paul Vallely: Big trouble hits British asparagus

Cooks must make do with... foreign brands

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The solitary bundle of asparagus on display in my greengrocer's shop the other day was a scrawny spindleshanks of stalks. Worse still, the buds were ferning out, which would mean that the shoots had already gone woody. Welcome to the Great British Asparagus Crisis.

Two very heavy frosts in April in the prime asparagus-growing area, around Evesham – which produces 60 per cent of the annual £20m British crop – were the start of the problem. Unless you count the earlier drought, that is. Then came several weeks of incessant rain – and asparagus needs warm dry conditions in its final weeks. By now, English asparagus should be shooting out of the ground faster than sharp-bladed artisans can cut it. But no. It lies dormant in the soil, and to such a degree that the annual British Asparagus Festival, supposed to open in Worcestershire yesterday, was cancelled. There is no asparagus to be had, except for those willing to pay double the usual price. To cap it all, the festival venue was flooded by the River Avon.

The thousands of asparagus eccentrics who normally descend upon the Vale of Evesham for the festival to gorge on the queen of vegetables have been told to stay at home.

Of course, thanks to supermarket imports, you can eat asparagus at any time of the year, flown in from Peru, Kenya or, in the case of the scrawny spindleshanks, Ecuador. But English asparagus – the best, for my money, is organic from the coast near Formby, where the beds are guarded from maritime marauders by Antony Gormley's Iron Men on Crosby beach – has a brighter, crisper, cleaner, more earthy taste.

The global marketplace has robbed us of the vibrancy of those seasonal experiences: wild salmon in February, spring lamb in March, new potatoes last month from Jersey, asparagus now, next month the watercress, then well-flavoured garden cucumbers and lettuces. As the summer continues, and the crab and lobster reach their best, come the currants, first gooseberries and early bilberries. Next the early plums, the new beetroots, the grouse, the wild mushrooms and the first English apples. In September, the oysters and a month after, all too briefly, the green Kentish cobnuts and the Michaelmas goose. Everything in its time; anticipated, enjoyed, remembered.

Now should be the feast-time of the asparagus with butter, vinaigrette, Hollandaise; in salad, stir-fry, omelette or spring green risotto; tossed with morels, in cheesy gratins or turned to soup. The great debate should only be whether it is best wrapped in Serrano or Parma and grilled before or after it is robed in the ham. Instead, the discussion is over whether the weather will write off the entire crop or whether the truncated season will bring an asparagus glut by the weekend of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

The rain has broken these past few days and temperatures have risen. Warm days should bring on the growth, though the forecast is for temperatures to cool towards the end of the week, which will slow it down again. Even so, the optimists are talking about re-timing the British Asparagus Festival to 27 May and combining it with the annual auction at the Fleece Inn at Bretforton Cross which sells the season's premium asparagus to raise money for the village's silver band.

Still, if this is to be a year without English asparagus – unless you count Marks &Spencer's poly-tunnelled version – that will be something for the calendar of national memory.

There is much else that is in its cyclical prime: carrots, radishes, samphire and spinach are now coming to their best. The forced rhubarb beloved by celebrity chefs is being supplanted by the better-flavoured garden variety. Soon the sorrel will be with us. And young nettles are just right for soup.

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