The first sighting of asparagus at our local Farmers’ Market at Wyken Vineyards heralds the beginning of summer eating – afternoons on the patio, a glass of wine in hand, the warmth of the sun on our faces (and a cardigan ready for when it gets a little nippy), and the delight of lighter meals of colourful seasonal vegetables.
I must confess, asparagus is a relatively new addition to my vegetable repertoire. Despite growing-up only minutes away from the fields of my now-favourite asparagus provider, I am pretty certain the fifteen-year-old me had never heard of or seen asparagus.
My eyes were first opened to the world of asparagus when I moved to London. Back then, the freshest my asparagus got was at the supermarket. These strange-looking green spears, not dissimilar to the bunches of daffodils you buy at the front of the store, looked exotic and enticing as they lay sandwiched between okra and the organic aubergines.
My culinary expertise was limited to say the least: I was fresh from university, and spaghetti bolognaise, breakfast fry-ups and Victoria sponges were still my specialty dishes. I had no idea how to cook with asparagus. I also suspect that any taste or nutritional value the asparagus might once have had was boiled out of it into the deep-green water; asparagus so floppy that it had to be transported to the plates with care, only ever to be a meagre accompaniment to steak or pork chops. It would be years before it would be made the star of a meal.
Nigel Slater’s advice in Tender: Volume 1 is sound: “Get the spears to the pot as quickly as you can. They lose their moisture and sweetness by the hour”. As difficult as this might seem, it is true. I only fell in love with asparagus when I was able to buy it straight from a farmers’ market, by the bunch, next to the field in which it had been picked.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the space to grow asparagus ourselves: we have a fairly strict rotation in our five raised beds. Since asparagus is one of the few perennial (multi-year) garden vegetables, it would need to be left permanently and undisturbed in one of our beds, and we cannot afford the space.
If you are more fortunate than us, and have a bed that can be reserved solely for asparagus, your best bet would be a two-year-old crown, planted early in the spring in well-drained soil in a sunny position. Don’t harvest any spears you get this first year: allow them to grow into tall frilly stems, and only cut them back down once they have turned brown in autumn. The following year, you should begin to get a crop you can eat, but remember to only harvest for about 6 weeks. After this, allow any remaining spears to grow again: this will allow the plant to remain healthy and productive. With a little luck, your plants could still be providing you with asparagus twenty years from now.
We are only a short drive away from the exceptional farmer’s market at Wyken where (among the vineyard and an impressive orchard) they also grow their own asparagus for restaurants and for the hungry public. Come the month of May, we like to make sure we arrive at the farmer’s market promptly to stock up on a few bunches of their rich, bright green asparagus tips.
Last year, due to the pandemic, we found it trickier to visit the farmers market, but were still determined to treat ourselves to some of our favourite local produce, especially since Wyken were struggling to sell what they had grown with the restaurants closed. We were delighted when we learnt that a nearby farm that sold eggs on the roadside was also selling Wyken asparagus. My father, who lives nearby, was able to pick us up a few bundles each week in exchange for a loaf of white bread and bread rolls from the wonderful Wooster’s bakery: a fair trade indeed. So happily, even in dark times, we were not deprived of our yearly asparagus fix.
With such an ingredient, the cooking is, of course, of the upmost importance. I must confess, I rarely cook asparagus these days: Sam is the asparagus chef in our house. A light treatment goes a long way, whether it is delicately steamed, ready to be served alongside a root vegetable rosti and gooey sheep’s cheese, or (my personal favourite) coated with olive oil, garlic and red chillies and then grilled or barbecued late in the season: a perfect accompaniment to lamb chops or spicy sausages. I am currently trying to convince Sam to share this recipe on the blog.
Asparagus does not last long in our household: it is devoured the day of purchase, when it still oozes with sweetness, crunchiness and flavour. Perhaps more than any other vegetable we eat, our mantra with asparagus is freshness is key, and with such a short picking season, asparagus always feels like a treat. It never fails to make a simple meal more special: adding chopped steamed spears and crispy bacon to an omelette makes a humble lunch feel decadent. With just a dash of lemon it’s a fine accompaniment to fish (such as trout or salmon), and it pairs beautifully with new potato salad for a comforting light meal.
We wait with eager anticipation for these meals, and this year has been no exception. The cold winter, and late spring has meant the asparagus season is slightly behind. This weekend coming, we will be making our regular trip out to Wyken Vineyards, which has announced the first of their asparagus is finally available. The extra wait has only made us more eager, so we will be first in line to buy several bundles, and advise that you do the same!