Thursday, 14 April 2011

Bring on the asparagus

Sat on a wall at Borough Market, late this morning, quaffing fruit juice and with the sort of feeling that you imagine is reserved for children on Christmas morning, it dawned on me that this was the sort of moment that renders the idea of ‘seasonality’ as a mere affectation utterly groundless.

In the shopping bag next to me were a small bag of Jersey Royals and two bundles of English asparagus.

I’d felt the same utter delight last year after a fruitful search for the same items. I knew, then and there, how they would be cooked. I knew too, how much they would be enjoyed. And on both occasions, they came with a joyful sense that the long, dark winter was truly behind us

And so much of that pleasure comes from the wait; the long months without such culinary jewels.

Setting aside any ethical issues (and there are a few) of buying imported asparagus, if you ate it throughout the year, why would you feel any such pleasure at the start of the English season?

Surely the only coherent reason would be that you knew that asparagus grown here has less distance to travel and is fresher. And, therefore, tastes a deal better.

In which case, why bother eating the imported product for the rest of the year?

Seasonality gives us these real pleasures. It gives us a sense of time and place. It helps to give us a sense of rootedness; of belonging.

Asparagus – or to give it it’s proper name asparagus officinals – is a cousin of the alliums, onions and garlic, and has been used as a medicine and vegetable for thousands of years: it features on an Egyptian frieze dating back to 3,000BC.

Indeed, there’s a recipe for cooking it in the oldest surviving recipe book, De re coquinaria, Book III, written by Apicius in the third century AD.

But the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans not only ate it fresh when in season, they also dried asparagus for use in winter.

In many places, white asparagus is more popular then the green that we’re familiar with. In Germany, spargel is a delicacy that is celebrated with relish throughout the short season: restaurants add special extra menus to make the most of it.

My menu for this evening was as simple as possible. I may get experimental as the season develops, but at this stage, I want my asparagus to be pretty much neat.

So, the potatoes were scraped and then boiled whole.

Some farmed salmon fillet was placed in a small sauté pan with a little Vermouth and a couple of bay leaves, lidded and left on a low heat for around 10 minutes. And those glorious green spears were carefully snapped and then laid into a pan with boiled water for four minutes.

Actually, they could have done with a minute less. Every year, it’s as though I have to learn again exactly how little cooking asparagus needs. But the taste was wonderful.

The only thing I added was a lemon butter: grated zest, mixed into unsalted butter, rolled in a little foil and bunged in the freezer to firm up.

Nothing else was required at all.

• You can find out more, including recipes, at British Asparagus.

Plus, grilled asparagus and hollandaise, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall asparagus recipes.


  1. An even better way to cook asparagus is to steam it:)

  2. mmmmmmm....I have an asparagus farm very near to me...could only be fresher if I grew it myself! I wait with baited breath for the sign to go up...'Fresh asparagus available now' Some things are worth waiting for. Enjoy!