Asparagus season is upon us.
The harvesting season traditionally starts on St George's Day, April 23, and continues until the summer solstice on June 21. A relatively short period- so make the most of it.
Earliest records of asparagus cultivation trace it back to Greece some 2,500 years ago, when the Greeks believed that it possessed medicinal properties and recommended it as a cure for toothaches. It was then prized by the Romans and reached England in the sixteenth century, and China and North America in the eighteen hundreds.
Asparagus is a member of the lily family. It has very few leaves and is its spears of white and green sometimes with a purple hue are delicate to the touch. White asparagus is popular in much of Europe and is produced by keeping the growing shoots hidden from light under soil. The less tender but more fully flavoured green variety predominates in England.
If asparagus is planted as one year old crowns, it is highly likely that a light crop is possible in two years time with full cropping in year four. With a lifespan up to fourteen years each crown tends to produce twenty eight spears which can grow as much as 10 centimetres a day.
A versatile vegetable with a robust flavour simply steamed with home made hollandaise sauce or maybe with Parmesan, a poached egg or cured ham. Acclaimed chefs such as Paul Ainsworth, Adrian Oliver, Michael Wilkinson; to name a few, are embracing this produce and are offering tantalising options on their seasonal menus.
When hand selecting your perfect bunch look for firm but tender stalks with good colour and closed tips. Smaller, thinner stalks are not necessarily more soft; in fact thicker specimens are often better due to the smaller ratio of skin to volume. Once picked, asparagus rapidly loses flavour and tenderness, so it wise to eat it on the day purchase. Not possible, then store asparagus in the fridge with a damp paper towel wrapped around the bottom of the stalks and it should then last a couple more days.
When you are ready to commence wash the asparagus in cold water and remove the bottom ends of the stalks (with fresh asparagus they will snap off cleanly). Boil or preferably steam quickly until just tender, around 4 to 7 minutes depending on the thickness, better still if you have an asparagus steamer as it will help ensure perfect results as it cooks the stalk bottoms more quickly than the delicate tips. Apart from making a delicious starter why not consider including it in a risotto, quiche or tart ot char grilled on a barbecue.
Spoilt for choice - start celebrating this local produce with some of the "tips" from our own chef at Flackley Ash Hotel & Restaurant or dine in and sample for yourselves.