It is hard to think of a vegetable which is as eagerly anticipated as that of home-grown asparagus. Partly it is because the season is so short: St George’s Day traditionally marks the start of the season which typically lasts for just eight weeks. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and, so long as we resist the temptations of year-round flown-in asparagus from foreign climes, the arrival of the first spears of this vegetable grown on home soil is as exciting a moment as any in the culinary calendar.
There are occasional disruptions to nature’s rhythm: last year frosts ruined large parts of the British crop forcing supermarkets to stock asparagus from abroad. This year, unseasonably warm January weather helped one supermarket to stock a British crop as early as the end of February. But asparagus is inextricably tied up with the arrival of summer and so I prefer to wait.
There are several varieties. Europeans – especially the Germans, Dutch, Belgians and French – are attached to the white variety that acquire their pale colour through mounding with earth during growing to withhold light. They have a delicate, slightly nutty flavour with a more fibrous texture than green and require longer cooking. Green asparagus by contrast is tender and sweet: and is amongst the most beautiful of vegetables to the eye. There is also a purple-coloured asparagus. And though less known, skinny and intensely-flavoured wild asparagus can sometimes be found by foragers in coastal parts of Cornwall, Dorset, Glamorgan and Pembrokeshire. It is though now endangered and so better left alone.
Preparing asparagus is straightforward. Cheffy-types will often peel the spears, and cut off the little leaves that attach themselves to the sides, but I don’t think it necessary. You only need to trim the ends of the woody base – and that is best done not with a knife but with your hands. The spears will snap naturally at the right point. You can use the snapped-off ends to make a stock for an asparagus risotto.
Only such a stately vegetable could justify its own equipment for cooking. For asparagus are traditionally cooked in a special asparagus pan which is deep enough for the spears to be sat upright in a metal basket submerged in a little water: their bases thus boil while the more delicate ends of the spears gently steam. A fitting utensil for those that have the cupboard space, but rather like a turbot kettle the kit feels more a tribute than essential. Instead you can simply blanch in a regular pan in salted boiling water for 2-5 minutes depending on their thickness, until the stalks are tender when pierced with a knife.
It is hard to beat tender stems simply blanched or steamed, with melted, salted butter for both flavour and gloss. Or dipped as soldiers into soft-boiled eggs with your fingers: as Jane Grigson advises, 'if the asparagus is cold, it will be easier to manage; if it is tepid it will taste even better. Provide napkins of cloth, not paper'. Just as pleasurable is eating it with a spoon of hollandaise, or maltaise sauce (essentially a hollandaise, but with the juice and rind of blood orange added). Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has a cheat’s version for hollandaise for those who can’t bear to wait. Asparagus and egg is a heavenly match all manner of ways: you should try pairing it with scrambled egg and brown shrimp too. It also goes well with parmesan or Grana Padano – as in this asparagus speltotto from Alexandra Dudley.
There are numerous other ways to cook it. Will Murray and Jack Croft, Chef Patrons of Fallow, recommend avoiding water altogether so as to not let flavour and nutrients leach out. They advise to 'add a splash of neutral oil and place the spears in it. Keep the lid on and gently roll the pan back and forth so no colour ends up on the asparagus. Cook for five minutes until tender and drain on kitchen paper before serving.' Ed Smith pairs it with sorrel in a delicious puff pastry tart. Robin Gill, of The Zebra Riding Club, suggests that if you're looking to be a little more cheffy, you could try making a seaweed tartar sauce with a chopped boiled egg through it: 'You can buy packs of mixed dried seaweed which I rehydrate with hot pickle liquor (you could use pickling liquor drained from a jar of cornichons). Then drain and chop the seaweed, before adding to a mixing bowl with a spoonful of chopped shallots, a tsp of Dijon mustard, a tsp of chopped capers, two tbsp of mayonnaise, two tbsp chopped parsley, one chopped boiled egg, salt and pepper. Mix together and serve with your warm or cold asparagus.' And while it is usually cooked, it can be eaten raw in a salad too. Helen Graham of Bubala, says 'I love to shave asparagus into ribbons with a potato peeler, then toss them in a salad with shaved apple and kohlrabi.'
Asparagus has some surprising qualities, namely giving a distinctive smell to urine. Marcel Proust, as befits the man who could wax so lyrically about madeleines, put it rather more poetically: after eating asparagus at a dinner 'they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.' He was clearly a fan.
Some vegetables are accompaniments. Others are born to be the main event. Its appearance is fleeting so, while it is around, British asparagus deserves to take centre stage.