It seems astonishing that only 15 years ago asparagus was something of a rarity in the UK, eaten by less than 10% of the population. It was mostly consumed in restaurants, as a starter, or, as I vividly remember from one holiday in Scotland, a regulation three spears appeared alongside the main course. Yet it is thanks to these restaurants that asparagus consumption has become popular in the UK again.
The history of asparagus growing in the UK is a long one which centred on the area in Worcestershire known as the Vale of Evesham. At its peak in 1938, the area had 1200 acres planted with asparagus. I am interested to see that literally at the 11th hour of us leaving the European Union on 31st December 2020, Vale of Evesham Asparagus was recognised as a Protected Food Name with PGI status. Lord only knows what value this will confer; however, it does provide us with a well-documented history and a protocol that growers in the area must abide by if they wish to receive this protected status.
The protocol tells us that the microclimate surrounding the Vale of Evesham ensures the crops warm quickly in the spring, but only where the soil is sandy and free draining. The protocol maintains that land outside the Evesham area is heavier, slow to warm and prone to being water-logged; although others claim that asparagus does, inexplicably, grow happily on these heavier clay soils. Evesham is a long way from the sea (about 70 miles from Weston-super-Mare) and most of the other areas that are notable for growing asparagus are the sandy soils of the coast. The dunes of Formby, near Liverpool, for example, also have a strong historical connection although hardly any is grown there now. Another seaside location with a great reputation for its asparagus is St Enodoc in Cornwall. It is popular with chefs with overnight deliveries three times a week. Their website notes that
… the salt deposits on the soil improve the flavour as the spears break ground. We don’t use artificial polytunnels to warm the soil to bring them up prematurely but wait until the air and soil temperatures are optimum for bringing the crowns back to life.
When you consider the difference that salt laden air lends to the grapes that are destined for a Manzanilla sherry compared with the further inland Fino, or if you have read the description of eating blackberries from the clifftops in west Cornwall contained in the book The Salt Path, it is entirely credible that the salty sea air might contribute much to the flavour.
The Second World War heralded the decline in asparagus growing in the Vale of Evesham from its heyday in 1938. During the Second World War it was forbidden to plant any new asparagus beds and although the existing crowns could continue to produce for up to 20 years if carefully managed, after the war there was a shortage of the labour that had previously been employed in market gardens. Our move towards centralised food production began with the war but has continued ever since and asparagus growing, and harvesting, is both labour intensive and also unsuited to lengthy distribution chains.
In my opinion it is this latter point that has the most bearing on the quality of asparagus – it must be eaten FRESH, that is within hours of picking rather than days. The natural sugars begin turning to starch from the moment it is cut, and I find that the best asparagus comes from roadside stalls right beside the fields where it has grown.
The Vale of Evesham Asparagus protocol does make some other useful points about the expertise that develops in an area. The sort of expertise that has learnt which field will be best suited to growing and knows exactly how to harvest to protect the life of the crowns. Once spent the same ground will not be suitable for replanting with asparagus for 30 years, which is why places like Formby ran out of fresh ground.
All of this explains why asparagus is always going to be too pricy to regard it as a mainstream vegetable, although it is an extremely welcome herald of summer, appearing at a time when precious little else is growing. If you do have the right soil and microclimate and are prepared to view it as a long-term investment (it will be 3 years after planting your crowns before you begin to take your first cut), asparagus would make a good choice for small growers who plan to sell to a local market.
Most growers don’t cut from any crown for more than 6 weeks so that it recovers well for the next year. The asparagus season traditionally runs from St George’s Day until Midsummer on 21st June. That is 8 weeks although if you have enough crowns, you could stagger cutting throughout this period. The price tends to be highest at the start of the season but once it gets going the asparagus can grow up to 10cm a day and quickly grown asparagus will be straight and tender. However, if the temperature is too low the asparagus will stop growing, or grow very slowly, giving crooked stems. April 2021 has been the coldest, frostiest, and driest for at least 60 years so the asparagus season was late to start but cutting should now continue right through to midsummer.*
Asparagus makes an ideal meat free meal because the main ingredient is still considered such a treat. As a main meal I would probably serve it in a risotto, although its affinity with eggs leads to several possibilities here – asparagus and goats’ cheese tart, omelette or just a simple softly boiled egg for dipping the spears. Jamie Oliver’s recipe for minted asparagus ravioli takes a little bit of work but remains a favourite that I must eat at least once in the season. When I do find somewhere to buy fresh asparagus, I tend to buy some of the cheaper sprue (thinner spears) or mis-shapes as well as perfect bundles. I will cook it all on the day I buy it but use the mis-shapes for soup which can be reheated the next day. This is also a good idea for the start of the season when all of the spears may be sprue and the weather perhaps more suited to soup than a salad.
For more cooking tips and recipes see here.
- Update – it is now nearly the end of May and there has been very little asparagus cut, apart from under polytunnels, owing now to heavy rain and continuing cold. So it will be an exceptionally late season, but the forecast is better for June.