Our asparagus season is short and sweet - all the spears need is lots of butter and respect


The British asparagus season is tantalisingly short (from the end of April until mid-June, on the whole)

From where I'm standing, at the side of a muddy brown field, London seems a long way off. It's the first bank holiday of summer, and the weather's suitably filthy, a mixture of chill blustery winds and fits of driving rain. Occasionally the clouds break to reveal a flash of brilliant blue sky, then the heavens close up once more.

Yet the few acres of furrowed earth before me are anything but deserted. About two dozen people in all, spread apart, some alone, others in pairs and family packs, potter slowly up and down. Every five seconds or so, they stop, stoop and drop something into their green plastic bags.

From a distance, it's a strangely soothing scene, each group unconnected yet somehow moving as one. And it's only when you reach the soil that you notice the sprigs jutting out from the long lines of piled earth. Some are thin and elegant, bent almost double by the breeze. Others are thick and stout, their tips dyed purple and straining skywards. All are asparagus, a seasonal treat so revered that were one such stalk to grow lips and a brain, an entire cult could be formed from its millions of human acolytes.

These days, foreign asparagus is available the whole year round. Yet freshness is everything. The British asparagus season is tantalisingly short (from the end of April until mid-June, on the whole) and this is a vegetable (well, it's a part of the lily family, really) that starts to deteriorate the moment it's picked, with the glorious sugars turning very quickly into dowdy starches. It goes from hero to zero in lightning-quick time.

Which was why I was so delighted to find the pick-your-own asparagus at Garsons (garsons.co.uk) in Esher, Surrey. Not only did they come in at a ridiculously cheap £5.99 per kilo (the normal consumer price is nearer £9), but I could have them home and simmering in salted water in less than a couple of hours.

Jeremy Lee, the chef behind London's marvellous Blueprint Café, has a brilliant tale of asparagus obsession.

'I heard about a man who grew his own asparagus,' he says in his soft Dundee burr, 'and the night before they were ready to harvest, he would set up a tent next-door to his beloved stems. As the sun rose the next day, his pan was already on the boil. So he had about five seconds between harvest and cooking. You can't get any better than that.'

Not all of us are similarly blessed with our own patch. Asparagus suffer slightly from a diva-ish reputation when it comes to growing. They need a loamy or sandy soil, nothing too heavy. And lots of room, too. Plus, a crown takes three years to come to harvest, although you can now buy them mature and ready to plant.

My father used to be a keen asparagus grower, but admits he now prefers to buy them in.

'They take a lot of weeding, and once you hit Ascot week in June, you have to stop cutting and let them run to seed. At my age, it just isn't worth the hassle.'

Still, there are areas famed for their asparagus production, among them the Wye Valley (if you're passing, try cobrey.co.uk) and Norfolk, too (greatbrichamfoods. co.uk). Buy them at the farm gate and rush home to cook them up.

When choosing, look for tight buds and firm stalks. Forget anything too listless or droopy, and check the base too. If the bottom looks thick, dry and woody, chances are they've been loitering about a little too long. The Blueprint Café (blueprintcafe.co.uk), just by London Bridge, is one of the best places to eat asparagus, either served simply boiled with butter and parmesan (and a poached egg on top), or wrapped in the thinnest, and most crisp, of pastries, then covered with a sprinkling of Parmesan and baked (see recipe below).

Mark Hix, too, is a huge fan, and you'll find them across his burgeoning empire (restaurantsetcltd.co.uk). At the Hix Oyster and Chophouse in Farringdon, London, he makes a mean raw salad with fennel and Caerphilly cheese (see the recipe below) that manages to be both light and substantial enough for a decent lunch.

At heart, though, I'm a purist, wanting nothing more than a caress of melted butter or, perhaps, a fat splodge of hollandaise sauce. Although the Italian method of massaging with olive oil, seasoning generously, then cooking on a hot griddle is pretty fine, too.

Don't worry about specially designed asparagus steamers. Simply cook them in well-salted water for about five minutes, then make sure you drain and dry them properly to soak off any excess water. There should be a great pile of stalks before you, and fingers are a must. A soft-boiled egg is always welcome (treat them like soldiers), or a poached one, draped carefully on top, then popped, so the yolk oozes over the spears.

You want to taste that just-cut, deeply green sweetness. The only real downside is that strange-smelling urine that asparagus can produce, a result of mercaptan or some similarly obnoxious chemical compound. But when it comes to perhaps the finest vegetable of them all, noxiously scented pee is a small price to pay.

Jeremy Lee’s baked Asparagus With Parmesan

Serves 4-5

Feuilles de brick is a Tunisian pastry similar to filo. You’ll find it in packs of ten sheets at Waitrose.
20 asparagus spears
1 packet feuilles de brick
100g unsalted butter, melted and kept just warm
35g freshly grated parmesan
Sea salt and freshly milled pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 5. If the asparagus is tough-skinned, the pleasure in eating is diminished. Peeling the stalk will set this to rights.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and plunge in the asparagus spears. Pop on a lid and bring the pot to a boil once again. Remove the lid and boil furiously until the asparagus is tender.

3. Lift the asparagus from the pot and lay on a tray to cool and keep its colour somewhat.

4. Lay one sheet of pastry on a cleared surface, placing a damp towel on the remaining pile to prevent them drying out. Brush lightly with butter, sprinkle on some Parmesan and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cut the sheets in half and lay a spear of asparagus along the cut edge of each half. Roll the spear tightly in the brick, ending up with a curious-looking stick, like a very long cigarette. Lay this on a baking sheet and continue until all done. Place these in the fridge for 10 minutes or so until a little rested. These can be done hours in advance, if not the day before should necessity demand.

5. Place the trays, one or two at a time, in the hot oven and bake for 7 or 8 minutes until golden brown. Heap the spears on a plate, grate Parmesan all over and serve swiftly.

Mark Hix’s Shaved fennel, asparagus and Gorwydd Caerphilly salad

Serves 4

4 thick or 8 medium fresh asparagus stems with the woody stalk cut off
1 young head of fennel
A handful of small salad leaves such as silver sorrel, land cress and/or parsley
70-80g good quality Caerphilly such as Gorwydd

For the dressing
The juice and grated zest of half a lemon
4-5tbsp extra virgin rapeseed oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp parsley oil

1. With a mandolin or a very sharp knife cut the asparagus on the angle as thinly as possible.

2. Halve the fennel and remove the root. Slice the fennel again as thinly as possible and mix in a bowl with the asparagus.

3. Mix all of the ingredients for the dressing and season.

4. Toss the leaves with the asparagus and fennel and season lightly and arrange on plates.

5. Shave the cheese with a small, sharp knife or a vegetable peeler and scatter over the salad.

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